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the whole, putting aside his licence of language, which is
absolutely inexcusable, but for which it must be remem-
bered he not only made an ample apology, but such amends
as were possible by earnestly dissuading others from fol-
lowing his example, we shall be safe in saying that, though
he was assuredly no saint, there were not so very many
better men then living than John Dryden.

A shorter summary will suffice for the literary aspect of
the matter ; for Dryden's peculiarities in this respect have
already been treated fully enough. In one of his own last
letters he states that his life-object had been to improve
the language, and especially the poetry. He had accom-
plished it. With our different estimate of the value of
old English literature, we cannot, indeed, adopt Johnson's


metaphor, and say that "he found English of brick
and left it of marble." The comparison of Hamlet and
MurJicth to " brick," with Don Sebastian and the Spanish
Friar for "marble," would be absurd. But in truth the
1 1 THIS of the comparison are inappropriate. English as
Dryden found it and it must be remembered that he


found it not the English of Shakspeare and Bacon, not
even the English of such survivals as Milton and Taylor,
but the English of persons like Cowley, Davenant, and their
likes was not wholly marble or wholly brick. No such
metaphor can conveniently describe it. It was rather an
instrument or machine which had in times past turned out
splendid work, but work comparatively limited in kind,
and liable to constant flaws and imperfections of more or
less magnitude. In the hands of the men who had lately
worked it, the good work had been far less in quantity and
inferior in quality ; the faults and flaws had been great
and numerous. Dryden so altered the instrument and its
working that, at its best, it produced a less splendid result
than before, and became less suited for some of the high-
est applications, but at the same time became available for
a far greater variety of ordinary purposes, was far surer
in its working, without extraordinary genius on the part of
the worker, and was almost secure against the grosser im-
perfections. The forty years' work which is at once the
record and the example of this accomplishment is itself
full of faults and blemishes, but they are always committed
in the effort to improve. Dryden is always striving, and
consciously striving, to find better literary forms, a better
vocabulary, better metres, better constructions, better style.
IK- may in no one branch have attained the entire and
flawless perfection which distinguishes Pope as far as he
goes ; but the range of Dryden is to the range of Pope as


that of a forest to a shrubbery, and in this ease priority
is everything, and the priority is on the side of Dryden.
He is not our greatest poet ; far from it. But there is
one point in which the superlative may safely be applied
to him. Considering what he started with, what he ac-
complished, and what advantages he left to his successors,
he must be pronounced, without exception, the greatest
craftsman in English letters, and as such he ouo-ht to be

O ' o

regarded with peculiar veneration by all who, in however
humble a capacity, are connected with the craft.

This general estimate, as well as much of the detailed
criticism on which it is based, and which will be found in
the preceding chapters, will no doubt seem exaggerated to
not a few persons, to the judgment of some at least of
whom I should be sorry that it should seem so. The truth
is, that while the criticism of poetry is in such a disorderly
state as it is at present in regard to general principles, it
cannot be expected that there should be any agreement
between individual practitioners of it on individual points.
So long as any one holds a definition of poetry which re-
gards it wholly or chiefly from the point of view of its
subject-matter, wide differences are unavoidable. But if
we hold what I venture to think the only Catholic faith
with regard to it, that it consists not in a selection of sub-
jects, but in a method of treatment, then it seems to me
that all difficulty vanishes. We get out of the hopeless
and sterile controversies as to whether Shelley was a great-
er poet than Dryden, or Dryden a greater poet than Shel-
ley. For my part, I yield to no man living in rational ad-
miration for either, but I decline altogether to assign marks
to each in a competitive examination. There are, as it
seems to me, many mansions in poetry, and the great poets
live apart in them. What constitutes a great poet is su-


premacy in his own line of poetioal expression. Such
supremacy must of course be shown in work of sufficient
bulk and variety, on the principle that one swallow does
not make a summer. We cannot call Lovelace a great
poet, or Barnabc Barnes; perhaps we cannot give the
name to Collins or to Gray. We must be satisfied that
the poet has his faculty of expression well at command,
not merely that it sometimes visits him in a casual man-
ner; and we must know that he can apply it in a sufficient
number of different ways. But when we see that be can
under these conditions exhibit pretty constantly the poet-
ical differentia, the power of making the common uncom-
mon by the use of articulate language in metrical arrange-
ment so as to excite indefinite suggestions of beauty, then
lie must be acknowledged a master.

When we want to see whether a man is a great poet or
not, let us take him in his commonplaces, and see what he
does with them. Here are four lines which are among
the last that Dryden wrote ; they occur in the address to
the Duchess of Ormond, who was, it must be remembered,
by birth Lady Margaret Somerset :

" daughter of the rose, whose cheeks unite
The differing titles of the red and white,
Who heaven's alternate beauty well display,
The blush of morning and the milky way."

The ideas contained in these lines are as old, beyond all
doubt, as the practice of love-making between persons of
the Caucasian type of physiognomy, and the images in
which those ideas are expressed are in themselves as well
worn as the stones of the Pyramids. But I maintain that


any poetical critic worth his salt could, without knowing
who wrote them, but merely from the arrangement of the


words, the rhythm and cadence of the line, and the manner
in which the images are presented, write " This is a poet,
and probably a great poet," across them, and that he would
be right in doing so. When such a critic, in reading the
works of the author of these lines, finds that the same touch
is, if not invariably, almost always present; that in the
handling of the most unpromising themes, the mots rayon-
nantSj the mots de lumiere are never lacking; that the sug-
gested images of beauty never fail for long together ; then
he is justified in striking out the " probably," and writing
" This is a great poet." If he tries to go farther, and to
range his great poets in order of merit, he will almost cer-
tainly fail. He cannot count up the beauties in one, and
then the beauties in the other, and strike the balance ac-
cordingly. He can only say, " There is the faculty of pro-
ducing those beauties ; it is exercised under such condi-

O '

tions, and with such results, that there is no doubt of its
being a native and resident faculty, not a mere casual in-
spiration of the moment; and this being so, I pronounce
the man a poet, and a great one." This can be said of
Dry den, as it can be said of Shelley, or Spenser, or Keats,
to name only the great English poets who are most dis-
similar to him in subject and in style. All beyond this
is treacherous speculation. The critic quits the assistance
of a plain and catholic theory of poetry, and developes
all sorts of private judgments, and not improbably private
crotchets. The ideas which this poet works on are more
congenial to his ideas than the ideas which that poet w r orks
on ; the dialect of one is softer to his ear than the dialect
of another ; very frequently some characteristic which has
not the remotest connexion with his poetical merits or
demerits makes the scale turn. Of only one poet can it
be safely said that he is greater than the other great poets,

I'.U DRYDEN". [CHAP. ix.

for the reason that in Dryden's own words he is larger
and more comprehensive than any of them. But with the
exception of Shakspeare, the greatest poets in different
Myles are, in the eyes of a sound poetical criticism, very
much on an equality. Dryden's peculiar gift, in which no
poet of any language has surpassed him, is the faculty of
treating any subject which he does treat poetically. His
range is enormous, and wherever it is deficient, it is possi-
ble to sec that external circumstances had to do with the
apparent limitation. That the author of the tremendous
satire of the political pieces should be the author of the
exquisite lyrics scattered about the plays ; that the special
pleader of Reliyio Laid should be the tale-teller of Pala-
mon and Arcite, are things which, the more carefully I
study other poets and their comparatively limited perfec-
tion, astonish me the more. My natural man may like
Kubla Khan, or the Ode on a Grecian Urn, or the Ode
on Intimations of Immortality, or World! Life!
Time ! with an intenser liking; than that which it feels for


anything of Dryden's. But that arises from the pure ac-
cident that I was born in the first half of the nineteenth
century, and Dryden in the first half of the seventeenth.
The whirlijnor of time has altered and is altering this re-

O ~ O

lation between poet and reader in every generation. But
what it cannot alter is the fact that the poetical virtue
which is present in Dryden is the same poetical virtue
that is present in Lucretius and in ^Eschylus, in Shelley
and in Spenser, in Heine and in Hugo.






THE life and writings of Pope have been discussed in a literature
more voluminous than that which exists in the case of almost any
other English man of letters. No biographer, however, has pro-
duced a definitive or exhaustive work. It seems, therefore, desirable
to indicate the main authorities upon which such a biographer would
have to rely, and which have been consulted for the purpose of the
following necessarily brief and imperfect sketch.

The first life of Pope was a catchpenny book, by William Ayre,
published in 1745, and remarkable chiefly as giving the first version
of some demonstrably erroneous statements, unfortunately adopted
by later writers. In 1751, "Warburton, as Pope's literary executor,
published the authoritative edition of the poet's works, with notes
containing some biographical matter. In 1769 appeared a life by
Owen Ruffhead, who wrote under Warburton's inspiration. This is
a dull and meagre performance, and much of it is devoted to an at-
tack partly written by Warburton himself upon the criticisms'ad-
vanced in the first volume of Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope. War-
ton's first volume was published in 1756; and it seems that the
dread of Warburton's wrath counted for something in the delay of
the second volume, which did not appear till 1782. The Essay con-
tains a good many anecdotes of interest. Warton's edition of Pope
the notes in which are chiefly drawn from the Essay was pub-
lished in 1797. The Life by Johnson appeared in 1781; it is ad-
mirable in many ways ; but Johnson had taken the least possible
trouble in ascertaining facts. Both Warton and Johnson had be-
fore them*the manuscript collections of Joseph Spence, who had
known Pope personally during the last twenty years of his life, and
wanted nothing but literary ability to have become an efficient Bos-


well. Spence's anecdotes, which were not published till 1820, give
the best obtainable information upon many points, especially in re-
irard to Pope's childhood. This ends the list of biographers who
were in any sense contemporary with Pope. Their statements must
be eheckcd and supplemented by the poet's own letters, and innu-
merable references to him in the literature of the time. In 1806
appeared the edition of Pope by Bowles, with a life prefixed. Bowles
expressed an unfavourable opinion of many points in Pope's charac-
ter, and some remarks by Campbell, in his specimens of English
poets, led to a controversy (1819-1826) in which Bowles defended
his views against Campbell, Byron, Roscoe, and others, and which in-
cidentally cleared up some disputed questions. Roscoe, the author
of the life of Leo X., published his edition of Pope in 1824. A life
is contained in the first volume, but it is a feeble performance; and
the notes, many of them directed against Bowles, are of little value.
A more complete biography was published by R. Carruthers (with
an edition of the works), in 1854. The second, and much improved,
edition appeared in 1857, and is still the most convenient life of
Pope, though Mr. Carruthers was not fully acquainted with the last
results of some recent investigations, which have thrown a new light
upon the poet's career.

The writer who took the lead in these inquiries was the late Mr.
Dilke. Mr. Dilke published the results of his investigations (which
\\ere partly guided by the discovery of a previously unpublished
correspondence between Pope and his friend Caryll), in the Athcncenm
ami Xvtes and Queries, at various intervals, from 1854 to 1860. His
contributions to the subject have been collated in the first volume of
the l'<ipers of a CY/7/V, edited by his grandson, the present Sir Charles
\V. Dilke, in 1875. Meanwhile Mr. Croker had been making an ex-
tensive collection of materials for an exhaustive edition of Pope's
works, in which he was to be assisted by Mr. Peter Cunningham.
A Her Croker'.- death these materials were submitted by Mr. Murray
to Mr. Whitwell Elwin, whose own researches have greatly extended
our knowledge, and who had also the advantage of Mr. Dilke's ad-
vice. Mr. Elwin began, in 1871, the publication of the long-promised
edition. It wa.- to have occupied ten volumes five of poems and
the of correspondence, the latter of which was to include a very
large proportion of previously unpublished matter. Unfortunately
for all students of English literature, only two volumes of poetry


and three of correspondence have appeared. The notes and prefaces,
however, contain a vast amount of information, which clears up
many previously disputed points in the poet's eniver; and it is to be
hoped that the materials collected for the remaining volumes will
not be ultimately lost. It is easy to dispute some of Mr. Elwin's
critical opinions, but it would be impossible to speak too highly of
the value of his investigations of facts. Without a study of his
work, no adequate knowledge of Pope is attainable.

The ideal biographer of Pope, if he ever appears, must be endowed
with the qualities of an acute critic and a patient antiquarian ; and
it would take years of labour to work out all the minute problems
connected with the subject. All that I can profess to have done i-
to have given a short summary of the obvious facts, and of the main
conclusions established by the evidence given at length in the writ-
ings of Mr. Dilke and Mr. Elwin. I have added such criticisms as
seemed desirable in a work of this kind, and I must beg pardon by-
anticipation if I have fallen into inaccuracies in relating a story so

full of pitfalls for the unwary.






















THE father of Alexander Pope was a London merchant, a
devout Catholic, and not improbably a convert to Cathol-
icism. His mother was one of seventeen children of Wil-
liam Turner, of York ; one of her sisters was the wife of
Cooper, the well-known portrait -painter. Mrs. Cooper
was the poet's godmother ; she died when he was five
years old, leaving to her sister, Mrs. Pope, " a grinding-
stone and muller," and their mother's " picture in lim-
ning ;" and to her nephew, the little Alexander, all her
" books, pictures, and medals set in gold or otherwise."

In after-life the poet made some progress in acquiring
the art of painting ; and the bequest suggests the possi-
bility that the precocious child had already given some in-
dications of artistic taste. Affectionate eyes were certain-
ly on the watch for any symptoms of developing talent.
Pope was born on May 21, 1688 - the annus miralilis
which introduced a new political era in England, and was
fatal to the hopes of ardent Catholics. About the same


time, partly, perhaps, in consequence of the catastrophe,
Pope's father retired from business, and settled at Bin-
field, a village two miles from Wokinghani and nine from
AYiiid-oi-. It is near Bracknell, one of Shelley's brief
perching places, and in such a region as poets might love,
if poetic praises of rustic seclusion are to be taken scrious-
Iv. To the east were the " forests and green retreats " of
Windsor; and the wild heaths of Bagshot, Chobham, and
Aldcrshot stretched for miles to the south. Some twelve
miles off in that direction, one may remark, lay Moor
Park, where the sturdy pedestrian, Swift, was living with
Sir \V. Temple during great part of Pope's childhood ;
but it does not appear that his walks ever took him to
Pope's neighbourhood, nor did he see, till some years later,
the lad with whom he was to form one of the most fa-
mous of literary friendships. The little household was pre-
sumably a very quiet one, and remained fixed at Binfield
for twenty-seven years, till the son had grown to manhood
and celebrity. From the earliest period he seems to have
been a domestic idol. He was not an onlv child, for he


had a half-sister, by his father's side, who must have been
considerably older than himself, as her mother died nine
years before the poet's birth. But he was the only child
of his mother, and his parents concentrated upon him an
affection which he returned with touching ardour and per-
sistence. They were both forty -six in the year of his
birth. He inherited headaches from his mother, and a
crooked figure from his father. A nurse who shared
their care lived with him for many years, and w r as buried


by him, with an affectionate epitaph, in 1V25. The fam-
ily tradition represents him as a sweet-tempered child, and
says that he was called the "little nightingale' from the

o o

beauty of his voice. As the sickly, solitary, and preco-


cious infant of elderly parents, we may guess that lie was
not a little spoilt, if only in the technical sense.

The religion of the family made their seclusion from
the world the more rigid, and l>y consequence must have
strengthened their mutual adhesiveness. Catholics were
then harassed by a legislation which would be condemned
by any modern standard as intolerably tyrannical. \Yhat-
ever apology may be urged for the legislators on the score
of contemporary prejudices or special circumstances, their
best excuse is that their laws were rather intended to sat-
isfy constituents, and to supply a potential means of de-
fence, than to be carried into actual execution. It does
not appear that the Popes had to fear any active molesta-
tion in the quiet observance of their religious duties. Yet
a Catholic was not only a member of a hated minority, re-
garded by the rest of his countrymen as representing the
evil principle in politics and religion, but was rigorously
excluded from a public career, and from every position of
honour or authority. In times of excitement the severer
laws might be put in force. The public exercise of the
Catholic religion was forbidden, and to be a Catholic w-as

o '

to be predisposed to the various Jacobite intrigues which
still had many chances in their favour. AVhen the Pre-
tender was expected in 1744, a proclamation, to which
Pope thought it decent to pay obedience, forbade the ap-
pearance of Catholics within ten miles of London ; and in
1730 we find him making interest on behalf of a nephew-,
who had been prevented from becoming an attorney be-
cause the judges were rigidly enforcing the oaths of su-
premacy and allegiance.

The Catholics had to pay double taxes, and were pro-
hibited from acquiring real property. The elder Pope,
according to a certainly inaccurate story, had a conscien-


tious objection to investing his money in the funds of
a Protestant government, and, therefore, having converted
his capital into coin, put it in a strong-box, and took it
out as he wanted it. The old merchant was not quite so
helpless, for we know that he had investments in the
1-Yench rentes, besides other sources of income ; but the
story probably reflects the fact that his religious disquali-
fications hampered even his financial position.

Pope's character was affected in many ways by the fact
of his belonging to a sect thus harassed and restrained.
Persecution, like bodily infirmity, has an ambiguous in-
fluence. If it sometimes generates in its victims a heroic
hatred of oppression, it sometimes predisposes them to
the use of the weapons of intrigue and falsehood, by
which the weak evade the tyranny of the strong. If
under that discipline Pope learnt to love toleration, he
\vns not untouched by the more demoralizing influences
of a life passed in an atmosphere of incessant plotting
and evasion. A more direct consequence was his ex-
clusion from the ordinary schools. The spirit of the
rickety lad might have been broken by the rough train-
ing of Eton or Westminster in those days; as, on the
other hand, he might have profited by acquiring a live-
lier perception of the meaning of that virtue of fair-
play, the appreciation of which is held to be a set-off
..u'ainst the brutalizing influences of our system of pub-
lic education. As it was, Pope was condemned to a
desultory education. He picked up some rudiments of
learning from the family priest; lie was sent to a school
at Twyford, where he is said to have got into trouble
for writing a lampoon upon his master; he went for a
-lx>rt time to another in London, where he gave a more
creditable if less characteristic proof of his poetical precoc-


ity. Like other lads of genius, lie put together a kind of
play a combination, it seems, of the speeches in Ogilby's
Iliad and got it acted by his schoolfellows. These brief
snatches of schooling, however, counted for little. Pope
settled at home at the early age of twelve, and plunged
into the delights of miscellaneous reading with the ardour
of precocious talent. He read so eagerly that his feeble
constitution threatened to break down, and when about
seventeen, he despaired of recovery, and wrote a farewell
to his friends. One of them, an Abbe Southcote, applied
for advice to the celebrated Dr. Radcliffe, who judiciously
prescribed idleness and exercise. Pope soon recovered,
and, it is pleasant to add, showed his gratitude long af-
terwards by obtaining for Southcote, through Sir Robert
Walpole, a desirable piece of French preferment. Self-
guided studies have their advantages, as Pope himself ob-
served, but they do not lead a youth through the dry
places of literature, or stimulate him to severe intellectual
training. Pope seems to have made some hasty raids
into philosophy and theology ; he dipped into Locke, and
found him " insipid ;" he went through a collection of the
controversial literature of the reign of James II., which
seems to have constituted the paternal library, and was
alternately Protestant and Catholic, according to the last
book which he had read. But it was upon poetry and
pure literature that he flung himself with a genuine appe-
tite. He learnt lano-uao-es to get at the storv, unless a

O O O *"

translation offered an easier path, and followed wherever
fancy led, " like a boy gathering flowers in the fields and

It is needless to sav that he never became a scholar in


the strict sense of the term. Voltaire declared that he
could hardly read or speak a word of French ; and his

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 15 of 44)