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the room, yet round about her station she had cast
a shadow and a cloud, and she shined to everybody
but herself." This is poetry, though not in verse.
The plays of the elder dramatists are not without
examples of weak and vile women, but they are not
without noble ones either. Take these verses of
Chapman, for example :

" I jet no man value at a little price
A virtuous woman's counsel : her winged spirit
Is feathered oftentimes with noble words
And, like her beauty, ravishing and pure ;
The weaker body, still the stronger soul.
O, what a treasure is a virtuous wife,
Discreet and loving. Not one gift on earth
Makes a man's life so nighly bound to heaven.
She gives him double forces to endure
And to enjoy, being one with him,
Feeling his joys and griefs with equal sense :
If he fetch sighs, she draws her breath as short ;
If he lament, she melts herself in tears ;
If he be glad, she triumphs ; if he stir,



48 POPE

She moves his way, in all things his sweet ape,
Himself divinely varied without change.
All store without her leaves a man but poor,
And with her poverty is exceeding store."

Pope in the characters I have read was drawing his
ideal woman, for he says at the end that she shall
be his muse. The sentiments are those of a bour
geois and of the back parlor, more than of the poet
and the muse's bower. A man's mind is known by
the company it keeps.

Now it is very possible that the women of Pope's
time were as bad as they could be ; but if God made
poets for anything, it was to keep alive the traditions
of the pure, the holy, and the beautiful. I grant
the influence of the age, but there is a sense in
which the poet is of no age, and Beauty, driven
from every other home, will never be an outcast
and a wanderer, while there is a poet's nature left,
will never fail of the tribute at least of a song. It
seems to me that Pope had a sense of the neat rather
than of the beautiful. His nature delighted more
in detecting the blemish than in enjoying the charm.

However great his merit in expression, I think it
impossible that a true poet could have written such
a satire as the Dunciad, which is even nastier than
it is witty. It is filthy even in a filthy age, and
Swift himself could not have gone beyond some
parts of it. One's mind needs to be sprinkled with
some disinfecting fluid after reading it. I do not
remember that any other poet ever made poverty a
crime. And it is wholly without discrimination.
De Foe is set in the pillory forever ; and George



POPE 49

Wither, the author of that charming poem, " Fair
Virtue," classed among the dunces. And was it
not in this age that loose Dick Steele paid his wife
the finest compliment ever paid to woman, when he
said " that to love her was a liberal education " ?

Even in the " Rape of the Lock," the fancy is that
of a wit rather than of a poet. It might not be just
to compare his Sylphs with the Fairies of Shake
speare ; but contrast the kind of fancy shown in
the poem with that of Drayton's Nymphidia, for
example. I will give one stanza of it, describing
the palace of the Fairy :

" The walls of spider's kgs were made,
Well mortised, and finely laid :
(He was the master of his trade
It curiously that builded : )
The windows of the eyes of cats,
And, for the roof, instead of slats
'T is covered with the skins of bats,
With moonshine that are gilded."

In the last line the eye and fancy of a poet are rec
ognized.

Personally we know more about Pope than about
any of our poets. He kept no secrets about himself.
If he did not let the cat out of the bag, he always
contrived to give her tail a wrench so that we might
know she was there. In spite of the savageness
of his satires, his natural disposition seems to have
been an amiable one, and his character as an author
was as purely factitious as his style. Dr. Johnson
appears to have suspected his sincerity ; but artifice
more than insincerity lay at the basis of his charac
ter. I think that there was very little real malice



60 POPE

in him, and that his " evil was wrought from want
of thought." When Dennis was old and poor, he
wrote a prologue for a play to be acted for his ben
efit. Except Addison, he numbered among his
friends the most illustrious men of his time.

The correspondence of Pope is, on the whole, less
interesting than that of any other eminent English
poet, except that of Southey, and their letters have
the same fault of being labored compositions.
Southey's are, on the whole, the more agreeable of
the two, for they inspire one (as Pope's certainly
do not) with a sincere respect for the character of
the writer. Pope's are altogether too full of the
proclamation of his own virtues to be pleasant read
ing. It is plain that they were mostly addressed
to the public, perhaps even to posterity. But let
ters, however carefully drilled to be circumspect,
are sure to blab, and those of Pope leave in the
reader's mind an unpleasant feeling of circumspec
tion, of an attempt to look as an eminent literary
character should rather than as the man really was.
They have the unnatural constraint of a man in
full dress sitting for his portrait and endeavoring
to look his best. We never catch him, if he can
help it, at unawares. Among all Pope's corre
spondents, Swift shows in the most dignified and,
one is tempted to say, the most amiable light. It
is creditable to the Dean that the letters which
Pope addressed to him are by far the most simple
and straightforward of any that he wrote. No
sham could encounter those terrible eyes in Dublin
without wincing. "I think, on the whole, that a



POPE 51

revision of judgment would substitute " discomfort
ing consciousness of the public " for " insincerity "
in judging Pope's character by his letters. He
could not shake off the habits of the author, and
never, or almost never, in prose, acquired that
knack of seeming carelessness that makes Wai-
pole's elaborate compositions such agreeable read
ing. Pope would seem to have kept a common
place book of phrases proper to this or that occa
sion ; and he transfers a compliment, a fine moral
sentiment, nay, even sometimes a burst of passion
ate ardor, from one correspondent to another, with
the most cold-blooded impartiality. We're it not
for this curious economy of his, no one could read
his letters to Lady Wortley Montagu without a
conviction that they were written by a lover. In
deed, I think nothing short of the spretce injuria
formce will account for (though it will not excuse)
the savage vindictiveness he felt and .showed to
wards her. It may be suspected also that the bit
terness of caste added gall to his resentment. His
enemy wore that impenetrable armor of superior
rank which rendered her indifference to his shafts
the more provoking that it was unaffected. Even
for us his satire loses its sting when we reflect that
it is not in human nature for a woman to have had
two such utterly irreconcilable characters as those
of Lady Mary before and after her quarrel with
the poet. In any view of Pope's conduct in this
affair, there is an ill savor in his attempting to de
grade a woman whom he had once made sacred with
his love. Spenser touches the right chord when he
says of the Rosalinde who had rejected him,



52 POPE

" Not, then, to her, that scorned thing so base,
But to myself the blame, that lookt so high ;
Yet so much grace let her vouchsafe to grant
To simple swain, sith her I may not love,
Tet that I may her honor paravant
And praise her worth, though far my wit above ;
Such grace shall be some guerdon of the grief
And long affliction which I have endured."

In his correspondence with Aaron Hill, Pope,
pushed to the wall, appears positively mean. He
vainly endeavors to show that his personalities had
all been written in the interests of literature and
morality, and from no selfish motive. But it is
hard to believe that Theobald would have been
deemed worthy of his disgustful preeminence but
for the manifest superiority of his edition of Shake
speare, or that Addison would have been so adroitly
disfigured unless through wounded self-love. It is
easy to conceive the resentful shame which Pope
must have felt when Addison so almost contempt
uously disavowed all complicity in his volunteer de
fence of Cato in a brutal assault on Dennis. Pope
had done a mean thing to propitiate a man whose
critical judgment he dreaded ; and the great man,
instead of thanking him, had resented his interfer
ence as impertinent. In the whole portrait of At-
ticus one cannot help feeling that Pope's satire is
not founded on knowledge, but rather on what his
own sensitive suspicion divined of the opinions of
one whose expressed preferences in poetry implied
a condemnation of the very grounds of the satirist's
own popularity. We shall not so easily give up
the purest and most dignified figure of that some-



POPE 53

what vulgar generation, who ranks with Sidney and
Spenser as one of the few perfect gentlemen in our
literary annals. A man who could command the
unswerving loyalty of honest and impulsive Dick
Steele could not have been a coward or a backbiter.
The only justification alleged by Pope was of the
flimsiest kind, namely, that Addison regretted the
introduction of the sylphs in the second edition of
the " Rape of the Lock," saying that the poem was
merum sal before. Let any one ask himself how
he likes an author's emendations of any poem to
which his ear had adapted itself in its former shape,
and he will hardly think it needful to charge Ad
dison with any mean motive for his conservatism
in this matter. One or two of Pope's letters are so
good as to make us regret that he did not oftener
don the dressing-gown and slippers in his corre
spondence. One in particular, to Lord Burlington,
describing a journey on horseback to Oxford with
Lintot the bookseller, is full of a lightsome humor
worthy of Cowper, almost worthy of Gray.

Joseph Warton, in summing up at the end of his
essay on the genius and writings of Pope, says that
the largest part of his works " is of the didac
tic, moral, and satiric ; and, consequently, not of
the most poetic species of poetry ; whence it is
manifest that good sense and judgment were his
characteristical excellences rather than fancy and
invention." It is plain that in any strict definition
there can be only one kind of poetry, and that what
Warton really meant to say was that Pope was not
a poet at all. This, I think, is shown by what



54 POPE

Johnson says in his "Life of Pope," though he
does not name Warton. The dispute on this point
went on with occasional lulls for more than a half-
century after Warton's death. It was renewed
with peculiar acrimony when the Rev. W. L.
Bowles diffused and confused Warton's critical
opinions in his own peculiarly helpless way in edit
ing a new edition of Pope in 1806. Bowles en
tirely mistook the functions of an editor, and mal-
adroitly entangled his judgment of the poetry with
his estimate of the author's character. 1 Thirteen
years later, Campbell, in his " Specimens," contro
verted Mr. Bowles's estimate of Pope's character
and position, both as man and poet. Mr. Bowles
replied in a letter to Campbell on what he called
" the invariable principles of poetry." This letter
was in turn somewhat sharply criticised by Gil-
christ in the Quarterly Review. Mr. Bowles made
an angry 'and unmannerly retort, among other
things charging Gilchrist with the crime of being
a tradesman's son, whereupon the affair became
what they call on the frontier a free fight, in which
Gilchrist, Roscoe, the elder Disraeli, and Byron
took part with equal relish, though with various
fortune. The last shot, in what had grown into
a thirty years' war, between the partisans of what

1 Bowles's Sonnets, wellnigh f orgotten now, did more than his
controversial writings for the cause he advocated. Their influence
upon the coming generation was great (greater than we can well
account for) and beneficial. Coleridge tells us that he made forty
copies of them while at Christ's Hospital. Wordsworth's prefaces
first made imagination the true test of poetry, in its more mod
ern sense. But they drew little notice till later.



POPE 55

was called the Old School of poetry and those of
the New, was fired by Bowles in 1826. Bowles, in
losing his temper, lost also what little logic he had,
and though, in a vague way, aesthetically right, con
trived always to be argumentatively wrong. Anger
made worse confusion in a brain never very clear,
and he had neither the scholarship nor the critical
faculty for a vigorous exposition of his own thesis.
Never was wilder hitting than his, and he laid
himself open to dreadful punishment, especially
from Byron, whose two letters are masterpieces of
polemic prose. Bowles most happily exemplified
in his own pamphlets what was really the turning-
point of the whole controversy (though all the
combatants more or less lost sight of it or never
saw it), namely, that without clearness and terse
ness there could be no good writing, whether in
prose or verse ; in other words that, while precision
of phrase presupposes lucidity of thought, yet good
writing is an art as well as a gift. Byron alone
saw clearly that here was the true knot of the ques
tion, though, as his object was mainly mischief, he
was not careful to loosen it. The sincerity of By
ron's admiration of Pope has been, it seems to me,
too hastily doubted. What he admired in him was
that patience in careful finish which he felt to be
wanting in himself and in most of his contempora
ries. Pope's assailants went so far as to make
a defect of what, rightly considered, was a distin
guished merit, though the amount of it was exag
gerated. The weak point in the case was that his
nicety concerned itself wholly about the phrase,



56 POPE

leaving the thought to be as faulty as it would, and
that it seldom extended beyond the couplet, often
not beyond a single verse. His serious poetry,
therefore, at its best, is a succession of loosely
strung epigrams, and no poet more often than he
makes the second line of the couplet a mere train-
bearer to the first. His more ambitious works may
be defined as careless thinking carefully versified.
Lessing was one of the first to see this, and accord
ingly he tells us that " his great, I will not say
greatest, merit lay in what we call the mechanic of
poetry." l Lessing, with his usual insight, paren
thetically qualifies his statement ; for where Pope,
as in the " Rape of the Lock," found a subject ex
actly level with his genius, he was able to make
what, taken for all in all, is the most perfect poem
in the language.

It will hardly be questioned that the man who
writes what is still piquant and rememberable, a
century and a quarter after his death, was a man of
genius. But there are two modes of uttering such
things as cleave to the memory of mankind. They
may be said or sung. I do not think that Pope's
verse anywhere sings, but it should seem that the
abiding presence of fancy in his best work forbids
his exclusiDn from the rank of poet. The atmos
phere in wHiich he habitually dwelt was an essen
tially prosaic one, the language habitual to him was
that of conversation and society, so that he lacked
the help of that fresher dialect which seems like

1 Briefe die neueste Litteratur betrejfend, 1759, ii. Brief. See
also his more elaborate criticism of the Essay on Man (Pope ein
Metaphysiker), 1755.



POPE 67

inspiration in the elder poets. His range of asso
ciations was of that narrow kind which is always
vulgar, whether it be found in the village or the
court. Certainly he has not the force and majesty
of Dryden in his better nioods, but he has a grace,
a finesse, an art of being pungent, a sensitiveness
to impressions, that would incline us to rank him
with Voltaire (whom in many ways he so much
resembles), as an author with whom the gift of
writing was primary, and that of verse secondary.
No other poet that I remember ever wrote prose
which is so purely prose as his ; and yet, in any im
partial criticism, the " Rape of thfe Lock " sets him
even as a poet far above many men more largely
endowed with poetic feeling and insight than he.

A great deal must be allowed to Pope for the
age in which he lived, and not a little, I think, for
the influence of Swift. In his own province he still
stands unapproachably alone. If to be the great
est satirist of individual men, rather than of human
nature, if to be the highest expression which the
life of the court and the ball-room has ever found
in verse, if to have added more phrases to our lan
guage than any other but Shakespeare, if to have
charmed four generations make a man a great poet,
then he is one. He was the chief founder of an
artificial style of writing, which in his hands was
living and powerful, because he used it to express
artificial modes of thinking and an artificial state
of society. Measured by any high standard of im
agination, he will be found wanting ; tried by any
test of wit, he is unrivalled.



MILTON i

[1872]

IF the biographies of literary men are to assume
the bulk which Mr. Masson is giving to that of
Milton, their authors should send a phial of elixir
vitce with the first volume, that a purchaser might
have some valid assurance of surviving to see the
last. Mr. Masson has already occupied thirteen
hundred and seventy-eight pages in getting Milton
to his thirty-fifth year, and an interval of eleven
years stretches between the dates of the first and
second instalments of his published labors. As
Milton's literary life properly begins at twenty-one,
with the " Ode on the Nativity," and as by far the
more important part of it lies between the year at
which we are arrived and his death at the age of
sixty-six, we might seem to have the terms given us
by which to make a rough reckoning of how soon

1 The Life of John Milton : narrated in Connection with the
Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his Time. By
David Masson, M. A., LL. D., Professor of Rhetoric and English
Literature in the University of Edinburgh. Vols. i., ii. 1638-
1643. London and New York : Macmillan & Co. 1871. 8vo.
pp. xii, 608.

The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited, with Introduction,
Notes, and an Essay on Milton's English, by David Masson, M. A.,
LL. D., Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the Uni
yersity of Edinburgh. 3 vols. 8vo. Macmillan & Co. 1874.



MILTON 59

we are likely to see land. But when we recollect
the baffling character of the winds and currents we
have already encountered, and the eddies that may
at any time slip us back to the reformation in Scot
land or the settlement of New England ; when we
consider, moreover, that Milton's life overlapped
the grand siecle of French literature, with its irre
sistible temptations to digression and homily for
a man of Mr. Masson's temperament, we may be
pardoned if a sigh of doubt and discouragement
escape us. We envy the secular leisures of Methu
selah, and are thankful that his biography at least
(if written in the same longeval proportion) is ir
recoverably lost to us. What a subject would that
have been for a person of Mr. Masson's spacious
predilections ! Even if he himself can count on
patriarchal prorogations of existence, let him hang
a print of the Countess of Desmond in his study to
remind him of the ambushes which Fate lays for
the toughest of us. For myself, I have not dared
to climb a cherry-tree since I began to read his
work. Even with the promise of a speedy third
volume before me, I feel by no means sure of living
to see Mary Powell back in her husband's house ;
for it is just at this crisis that Mr. Masson, with the
diabolical art of a practised serial writer, leaves us
while he goes into an exhaustive account of the
Westminster Assembly and the political and reli
gious notions of the Massachusetts Puritans. One
could not help thinking, after having got Milton
fairly through college, that he was never more mis
taken in his life than when he wrote,



60 MILTON

" How soon hath Time, that subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year ! "

Or is it Mr. Masson who has scotched Time's
wheels ?

It is plain from the Preface to the second volume
that Mr. Masson himself has an uneasy conscious
ness that something is wrong, and that Milton
ought somehow to be more than a mere incident of
his own biography. He tells us that, " whatever
may be thought by a hasty person looking in on the
subject from the outside, no one can study the life
of Milton as it ought to be studied without being
obliged to study extensively and intimately the
contemporary history of England, and even inci
dentally of Scotland and Ireland too. . . . Thus
on the very compulsion, or at least the suasion, of
the biography, a history grew on my hands. It was
not in human nature to confine the historical in
quiries, once they were in progress, within the pre
cise limits of their demonstrable bearing on the
biography, even had it been possible to determine
these limits beforehand ; and so the history as
sumed a coordinate importance with me, was pur
sued often for its own sake, and became, though
always with a sense of organic relation to the bio
graphy, continuous in itself." If a " hasty person "
be one who thinks eleven years rather long to have
his button held by a biographer ere he begin his
next sentence, I take to myself the sting of Mr.
Masson's covert sarcasm. I confess with shame a
pusillanimity that is apt to flag if a "to be contin
ued " do not redeem its promise before the lapse of



MILTON 61

a quinquennium. I could scarce await the " Auto
crat " himself so long. The heroic age of literature
is past, and even a duodecimo may often prove too
heavy (oloi vvv fiporol) for the descendants of men
to whom the folio was a pastime. But what does
Mr. Masson mean by " continuous " ? To me it
seems rather as if his somewhat rambling history
of the seventeenth century were interrupted now
and then by an unexpected apparition of Milton,
who, like Paul Pry, just pops in and hopes he does
not intrude, to tell us what he has been doing in
the mean while. The reader, immersed in Scottish
politics or the schemes of Archbishop Laud, is a lit
tle puzzled at first, but reconciles himself on being
reminded that this fair-haired young man is the
protagonist of the drama. Pars minima est ipsa
puella sui.

If Goethe was right in saying that every man
was a citizen of his age as well as of his country,
there can be no doubt that in order to understand
the motives and conduct of the man we must first
make ourselves intimate with the time in which he
lived. We have therefore no fault to find with the
thoroughness of Mr. Masson's " historical inquiries."
The more thorough the better, so far as they were
essential to the satisfactory performance of his task.
But it is only such contemporary events, opinions,
or persons as were really operative on the charac
ter of the man we are studying that are of conse
quence, and we are to familiarize ourselves with
them, not so much for the sake of explaining as of
understanding him. The biographer, especially of



62 MILTON

a literary man, need only mark the main currents
of tendency, without being officious to trace out to
its marshy source every runlet that has cast in its
tiny pitcherful with the rest. Much less should he
attempt an analysis of the stream and to classify
every component by itself, as if each were ever
effectual singly and not in combination. Human
motives cannot be thus chemically cross-examined,
nor do we arrive at any true knowledge of char
acter by such minute subdivision of its ingredients.
Nothing is so essential to a biographer as an eye
that can distinguish at a glance between real events
that are the levers of thought and action, and what
Donne calls " unconcerning things, matters of fact,"
between substantial personages, whose contact
or even neighborhood is influential, and the super
numeraries that serve first to fill up a stage and af
terwards the interstices of a biographical dictionary.

" Time hath a wallet at his back

Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion."

Let the biographer keep his fingers off that sa
cred and merciful deposit, and not renew for us the
bores of a former generation as if we had not
enough of our own. But if he cannot forbear that
unwise inquisitiveness, we may fairly complain when
he insists on taking us along with him in the pro
cesses of his investigation, instead of giving us the
sifted results in their bearing on the life and char



Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 28)