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of Greek would have satisfied Bcntlcy as lit-
tle as his French satisfied Voltaire. Yet he must have
been fairly conversant with the best known French liter-
ature of the time, and lie could probably stumble through
Homer with the help of a crib and a guess at the gener-
al meaning. He says himself that at this early period
he went through all the best critics : all the French, Eno -

c j ' * ^j

lish and Latin poems of any name ; " Homer and some
of the greater Greek poets in the original," and Tasso and
Ariosto in translations.

Tope, at any rate, acquired a wide knowledge of Eng-
lish poetry. Waller, Spenser, and Dryden were, he says,
his great favourites in the order named, till he was twelve.
Like so many other poets, he took infinite delight in the
Faery Queen; but Dryden, the great poetical luminary
of his own day, naturally exercised a predominant influ-
ence upon his mind. He declared that he had learnt
versification wholly from Dryden's works, and always
mentioned his name with reverence. Many scattered re-
marks reported by Spence, and the still more conclusive
evidence of frequent appropriation, show him to have
been familiar with the poetry of the preceding century,
and with much that had gone out of fashion in his time,
to a degree in which he was probably excelled by none of
his successors, with the exception of Gray. Like Gray,
he contemplated at one time the history of English poe-
trv, which was in some sense executed bv Warton. It is

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liaracteristic, too, that he early show r ed a critical spirit.
From a boy, he says, he could distinguish between sweet-
ness and softness of numbers Dryden exemplifying soft-
ii<-><, and AValler sweetness ; and the remark, whatever its
value, shows that he had been analysing his impressions
;ni'l r<-tlr<-tin<r upon the technical secrets of his art.


Such study naturally suggests the trembling aspiration,
" I, too, am a poet." Pope adopts with apparent sinceri-
ty the Ovidian phrase,

"As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lispM iu numbers, for the numbers came."

His father corrected his early performances, and, when
not satisfied, sent him back with the phrase, " These are
not good rhymes." lie translated any passages that
struck him in his reading, excited by the examples of
Ogilby's Homer and Sandys' Ovid. His boyish ambition
prompted him, before he was fifteen, to attempt an epic
poem ; the subject was Alcander, Prince of Rhodes, driven
from his home by Deucalion, father of Minos ; and the
work was modestly intended to emulate in different pas-
sages the beauties of Milton, Cowley, Spenser, Statins,
Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Claudian. Four books of this
poem survived for a long time, for Pope had a more than
parental fondness for all the children of his brain, and al-
ways had an eye to possible reproduction. Scraps from
this early epic were worked into the Essay on Criticism
and the Dimciad, This couplet, for example, from the
last work comes straight, we are told, from Alcander,

" As man's Meanders to the vital spring
Roll all their tides, then back their circles bring."

Another couplet, preserved by Spense, will give a suffi-
cient taste of its quality :

" Shields, helms, and swords all jangle as they hang,

And sound formidinous with angry clang."

After this we shall hardly censure Atterbury for ap-
proving (perhaps suggesting) its destruction in later years.


Pope long meditated another epic, relating the foundation
of the 1 Kn^lish government by Brutus of Troy, with a su-
perabundant display of didactic morality and religion.
Happilv this dreary conception, though it occupied much
thought, never came to the birth.


The time soon came when these tentative flights were


to be superseded by more serious efforts. Pope's ambi-
tion was directed into the same channel by his innate
propensities, and by the accidents of his position. No
man ever displayed a more exclusive devotion to litera-
ture, or was more tremblingly sensitive to the charm of
literary glory. His zeal was never distracted by any
rival emotion. Almost from his cradle to his grave his
eye was fixed unremittingly upon the sole purpose of his
life. The whole energies of his mind were absorbed in
the struggle to place his name as high as possible in that
temple of fame, which he painted after Chaucer in one
of his early poems. External conditions pointed to let-
ters as the sole path to eminence, but it was precisely the
path for which he had admirable qualifications. The
sickly son of the Popish tradesman was cut off from the
Bar, the Senate, and the Church. Physically contemptible,
politically ostracized, and in a humble social position, he
could yet win this dazzling prize and force his way with
his pen to the highest pinnacle of contemporary fame.
Without adventitious favour, and in spite of many bitter
antipathies, he was to become the acknowledged head of
English literature, and the welcome companion of all the
most eminent men of his time. Though he could not
foresee his career from the start, he worked as vigorously
a- if the goal had already been in sight ; and each suc-
cessive victory in the field of letters was realized the more
keenly from his sense of the disadvantages in face of


which it had been won. In tracing his rapid ascent, we
shall certainly find reason to doubt his proud assertion,

"That, if he pleased, ho pleased by manly ways;"

but it is impossible for any lover of literature to grudge
admiration to this singular triumph of pure intellect over
external disadvantages, and the still more depressing influ-
ences of incessant physical suffering.

Pope had, indeed, certain special advantages which he
was not slow in turning to account. In one respect even
his religion helped him to emerge into fame. There was
naturally a certain free-masonry amongst the Catholics al-
lied by fellow-feeling under the general antipathy. The
relations between Pope and his co-religionists exercised a
material influence upon his later life. Within a few miles
of Binfield lived the Blounts of Mapledurham, a fine old
Elizabethan mansion on the banks of the Thames, near
Reading, which had been held by a royalist Blount in the
civil war against a parliamentary assault. It was a more
interesting circumstance to Pope that Mr. Lister Blount,
the then representative of the family, had two fair daugh-
ters, Teresa and Martha, of about the poet's age. Another
of Pope's Catholic acquaintances was John Caryll, of West
Grinstead in Sussex, nephew of a Caryll who had been the
representative of James II. at the Court of Rome, and
who, following his master into exile, received the honours
of a titular peerage and held office in the melancholy court
of the Pretender. In such circles Pope might have been
expected to imbibe a Jacobite and Catholic horror of
Whigs and freethinkers. In fact, however, he belonged
from his youth to the followers of Gallio, and seems to
have paid to religious duties just as much attention as
would satisfy his parents. His mind was really given to


literature ; and he found his earliest patron in his imme-
diate neighbourhood. This was Sir W. Trumbull, who
had retired to his native village of Easthampstead in 1697,
after being ambassador at the Porte under James II., and
Secretary of State under William III. Sir William made
acquaintance with the Popes, praised the father's artichokes,
and was delighted with the precocious son. The old di-
plomatist and the young poet soon became fast friends,
took constant rides too-other, and talked over classic and

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modern poetry. Pope made Trumbull acquainted with
Milton's juvenile poems, and Trumbull encouraged Pope
to follow^ in Milton's steps. He gave, it seems, the first
suggestion to Pope that he should translate Homer; and
he exhorted his young friend to preserve his health by fly-
ing from tavern company tanquam ex incendio. Another
early patron \vas William Walsh, a Worcestershire country
gentleman of fortune and fashion, who condescended to
dabble in poetry after the manner of Waller, and to write
remonstrances upon Celia's cruelty, verses to his mistress
against marriage, epigrams, and pastoral eclogues. He was
better known, however, as a critic, and had been declared
by Drydcn to be, without flattery, the best in the nation.
Pope received from him one piece of advice which has
become famous. We had had great poets so said the
' knowing Walsh," as Pope calls him u but never one
great poet that was correct ;" and he accordingly recom-
mended Pope to make correctness his great aim. The ad-
vice doubtless impressed the young man as the echo of his
own convictions. Walsh died (1Y08) before the effect of
lii- sii'j^v.tion had become fully perceptible.

The acquaintance with Walsh was due to Wychcrley,
N\ ln> had submitted Pope's Pastorals to his recognized crit-
i'-il authority. Pope's intercourse with Wyeherley and


another early friend, Henry Cromwell, had a more impor-
tant bearing upon his early career. lie kept up a corre-
spondence with each of these friends, whilst he was still
passing through his probationary period ; and the letters,
published long afterwards under singular circumstances to
be hereafter related, give the fullest revelation of his char-
acter and position at this time. Both Wycherley and
Cromwell were known to the Englefields of Whiteknights,
near Reading, a Catholic family, in which Pope first made
the acquaintance of Martha Blount, whose mother was a
daughter of the old Mr. Englcfield of the day. It was pos-
sibly, therefore, through this connexion that Pope owed his
first introduction to the literary circles of London. Pope,
already thirsting for literary fame, was delighted to form
a connexion which must have been far from satisfactory
to his indulgent parents, if they understood the character
of his new associates.

Henry Cromwell, a remote cousin of the Protector, is
known to other than minute investigators of contemporary
literature by nothing except his friendship with Pope.
He was nearly thirty years older than Pope, and, though
heir to an estate in the country, was at this time a gay,
though rather elderly, man about town. Vague intima-
tions are preserved of his personal appearance. Gay calls
him "honest, hatless Cromwell with red breeches;" and
Johnson could learn about him. the single fact that he used
to ride a-hunting in a tie-wig. The interpretation of these
outward signs may not be very obvious to modern readers ;
but it is plain from other indications that he was one of
the frequenters of coffee-houses, aimed at being something
of a rake and a wit, was on speaking terms with Dryden,
and familiar with the smaller celebrities of literature, a reo -

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ular attendant at theatres, a friend of actresses, and able


to present himself in fashionable circles and devote com-
plimentary verses to the reigning' beauties at the Bath.
When he studied the Spectator he might recognize some
of his features reflected in the portrait of Will Honeycomb.
Pope was proud enough for the moment at being taken by
the hand by this elderly buck, though, as Pope himself
rose in the literary scale and could estimate literary repu-
tations more accurately, he became, it would seem, a lit-
tle ashamed of his early enthusiasm, and, at any rate, the
friendship dropped. The letters which passed between
the pair during four or five years, down to the end of 1711,
show Pope in his earliest manhood. They are characteristic
of that period of development in which a youth of literary
genius takes literary fame in the most desperately serious
sense. Pope is evidently putting his best foot forward,
and never for a moment forgets that he is a young author
writing to a recognized critic except, indeed, when he
takes the airs of an experienced rake. We might speak
of the absurd affectation displayed in the letters, were it
not that such affectation is the most genuine nature in a
clever boy. Unluckily, it became so ingrained in Pope
as to survive his youthful follies. Pope complacently in-
dulges in elaborate paradoxes and epigrams of the conven-
tional epistolary style ; he is painfully anxious to be alter-
nately sparkling and playful ; his head must be full of lit-
erature ; he indulges in an elaborate criticism of Statins,
and points out what a sudden fall that author makes at
one place from extravagant bombast ; he communicates
the latest efforts of his muse, and tries, one reorets to sav,

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to get more credit for precocity and originality than fairly
belongs to him; he accidentally alludes to his dog that he
may Krino; in a translation from the Odyssey, quote Plu-
tar'-h, and introduce an anecdote which he has heard from


Trumbnll about Charles T. ; lie elaborately discusses Crom-
well's classical translations, adduces authorities, ventures to
censure Mr. Howe's amplifications of Lucan, and, in this re-
spect, thinks that Breboeuf, the famous French translator, is
equally a sinner, and writes a long letter as to the proper
use of the cfesura and the hiatus in English verse. There
are signs that the mutual criticisms became a little trying

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to the tempers of the correspondents. Pope seems to be
inclined to ridicule Cromwell's pedantry, and when he af-
fects satisfaction at learning that Cromwell has detected
him in appropriating a rondeau from Voiture, we feel that
the tension is becoming serious. Probably he found out
that Cromwell was not only a bit of a prig, but a person
not likely to reflect much glory upon his friends, and the
correspondence came to an end, when Pope found a better
market for his wares.

Pope speaks more than once in these letters of his coun-
try retirement, where he could enjoy the company of the
muses, but where, on the other hand, he was forced to
be grave and godly, instead of drunk and scandalous as
he could be in town. The jolly hunting and drinking
squires round Binfield thought him, he says, a well-dis-
posed person, but unluckily disqualified for their rough
modes of enjoyment by his sickly health. With them he
has not been able to make one Latin quotation, but has
learnt a song of Tom Durfey's, the sole representative of
literature, it appears, at the " toping -tables " of these
thick-witted fox-hunters. Pope naturally longed for the
more refined, or at least more fashionable indulgences
of London life. Besides the literary affectation, he some-
times adopts the more offensive affectation unfortunately
not peculiar to any period of the youth who wishes to
pass himself off as deep in the knowledge of the world.


]'t>pc, as may he licrc said once for all, could be at times
grossly indecent; and in these letters there are passages
offensive upon this score, though the offence is far graver
when the same tendency appears, as it sometimes docs, in
his letters to women. There is no proof that Pope was
CUT licentious in practice. He was probably more tem-
perate than most of his companions, and could be accused
of fewer lapses from strict morality than, for example, the
excellent but thoughtless Steele. For this there was the
very good reason that his " little, tender, crazy carcass,"
as AYycherley calls it, was utterly unfit for such excesses as
his companions could practise with comparative impunity.
He was bound under heavy penalties to be through life a
valetudinarian, and such doses of wine as the respectable
Addison used regularly to absorb would have brought
speedy punishment. Pope's loose talk probably meant
little enough in the way of actual vice, though, as I have
already said, Trumbull saw reasons for friendly warning.
But some of his writings are stained by pruriency and
downright obscenity ; whilst the same fault may be con-
nected with a painful absence of that chivalrous feeling
towards women which redeems Steele's errors of conduct
in our estimate of his character. Pope always takes a
low, sometimes a brutal view of the relation between the

Enough, however, has been said upon this point. If
l''pe erred, he was certainly unfortunate in the objects of
his youthful hero-worship. Cromwell seems to have been
but a pedantic hanger-on of literary circles. His other
friend, AYycherlcy, had stronger claims upon his rc-
but certainly was not likely to raise his standard
"t delicacy. AYycherley was a relic of a past literary
epoch. lie was nearly fifty years older than Pope. His


last play, the Plain Dealer, had been produced in 1677,
eleven years before Pope's birtL. The Plain Dealer and
the Country Wife, his cliief performances, are conspicuous
amongst the comedies of the Restoration dramatists for
sheer brutality. During Pope's boyhood lie was an elder-
ly rake about town, Laving squandered Lis intellectual as
well as Lis pecuniary resources, but still scribbling bad
verses and maxims on the model of Rochefoucauld. Pope
Lad a very excusable, perhaps we may say creditable, en-
thusiasm for the acknowledged representatives of literary
glory. Before he was twelve years old Le Lad persuaded
some one to take Lira to Will's, that Le mio-ht Lave a si "-lit

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of the venerable Dryden ; and in the first published letter 1
to Wycherley he refers to this brief glimpse, and warmly
thanks Wycherley for some conversation about the elder
poet. And thus, when he came to know Wycherley, he
was enraptured with the honour. He followed the great
man about, as he tells us, like a dog; and, doubtless, re-
ceived with profound respect the anecdotes of literary life
which fell from the old gentleman's lips. Soon a corre-
spondence began, in which Pope adopts a less jaunty air
than that of his letters to Cromwell, but which is conduct-
ed on both sides in the laboured complimentary style
which was not unnatural in the davs when Cono-reve's

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comedy was taken to represent the conversation of fash-
ionable life. Presently, however, the letters beo-an to turn

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upon an obviously dangerous topic. Pope was only seven-
teen when it occurred to his friend to turn him to account
as a literary assistant. The lad had already shown con-
siderable powers of versification, and was soon employing
them in the revision of some of the numerous composi-

1 The letter is, unluckily, of doubtful authenticity ; but it repre-
sents Pope's probable sentiments.
2 15


tions which amused Wycherley's leisure. It would have
required, one might have thought, less than Wycherley's
experience to foresee the natural end of such an alliance.
P<>pc, in fact, set to work with great vigour in his favour-
ite occupation of correcting. He hacked and hewed right
and left ; omitted, compressed, rearranged, and occasional-
ly inserted additions of his own devising. Wycherley's
memory had been enfeebled by illness, and now played
him strano-e tricks. He was in the habit of reading him-


self to sleep with Montaigne, Rochefoucauld, and Racine.
Next morning he would, with entire unconsciousness, write
down as his own the thoughts of his author, or repeat al-
most word for word some previous composition of his
own. To remove such repetitions thoroughly would re-
quire a very free application of the knife, and Pope would
not be slow to discover that he was wasting talents fit


for original work in botching and tinkering a mass of

Any man of ripe years would have predicted the obvi-
ous consequences ; and, according to the ordinary story,
those consequences followed. Pope became more plain-
speaking, and at last almost insulting in his language.
Wycherley ended by demanding the return of his manu-
scripts, in a letter showing his annoyance under a veil of
civility ; and Pope sent them back with a smart reply,
recommending Wycherley to adopt a previous suggestion
and turn his poetry into maxims after the manner of
Rochefoucauld. The "old scribbler," says Johnson, "was
angry to see his pages defaced, and felt more pain from
the criticism than content from the amendment of his
faults." The story is told at length, and with his usual
brilliance, by Macaulay, and has hitherto passed muster
v>ith all Pope's biographers; and, indeed, it is so natural


a story, and is so far confirmed by other statements of
Pope, that it seems a pity to spoil it. And yet it must be
at least modified, for we have already reached one of those
perplexities which force a biographer of Pope to be con-
stantly looking to his footsteps. So numerous are the
contradictions which surround almost every incident of
the poet's career, that one is constantly in danger of stum-
bling into some pitfall, or bound to cross it in gingerly
fashion on the stepping-stone of a cautious " perhaps."
The letters which are the authority for this story have
undergone a manipulation from Pope himself, under cir-
cumstances to be hereafter noticed ; and recent researches
have shown that a very false colouring has been put upon
this as upon other passages. The nature of this strange
perversion is a curious illustration of Pope's absorbing

Pope, in fact, was evidently ashamed of the attitude
which he had not unnaturally adopted to his correspond-
ent. The first man of letters of his day could not bear to
reveal the full degree in which he had fawned upon the
decayed dramatist, whose inferiority to himself was now
plainly recognized. He altered the whole tone of the cor-
respondence by omission, and still worse by addition. lie
did not publish a letter in which Wycherley gently remon-
strates with his young admirer for excessive adulation ; lie
omitted from his own letters the phrase which had pro-
voked the remonstrance ; and, with more daring falsifica-
tion, he manufactured an imaginary letter to Wycherley
out of a letter really addressed to his friend Caryll. In
this letter Pope had himself addressed to Caryll a remon-
strance similar to that which he had received from Wych-
erley. When published as a letter to Wycherley, it gives
the impression that Pope, at the age of seventeen, was al-


readv rejecting excessive compliments addressed to him
by his experienced friend. By these audacious perver-
sions of the truth, Pope is enabled to heighten his youth-
ful independence, mid to represent himself as already
exhibiting a graceful superiority to the reception or the
offering of incense; whilst he thus precisely inverts the
relation which really existed between himself and his cor-

The letters, a^ain, when read with a due attention to

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dates, shows that Wycherley's proneness to take offence
lias at least been exaggerated. Pope's services to AVych-
erley were rendered on two separate occasions. The first
set of poems were corrected during 1706 and 1707; and
AYycherley, in speaking of this revision, far from showing
symptoms of annoyance, speaks with gratitude of Pope's
kindness, and returns the expressions of good-will which
accompanied his criticisms. Both these expressions, and
Wycherley's acknowledgment of them, were omitted in
Pope's publication. More than two years elapsed, when
(in April, 1710) Wycherley submitted a new set of manu-
scripts to Pope's unflinching severity ; and it is from the
letters which passed in regard to this last batch that the
general impression as to the nature of the quarrel has been
derived. But these letters, again, have been mutilated, and
so mutilated as to increase the apparent tartness of the
mutual retorts ; and it must therefore remain doubtful how
far the coolness which ensued was really due to the cause
assigned. Pope, writing at the time to Cromwell, expresses
hi> vexation at the difference, and professes himself unable
to account for it, though he thinks that his corrections

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may have been the cause of the rupture. An alternative
rumour, 1 it seems, accused Pope of having written some

1 Sec Ehvin's Po]>r, vol. i., cxxxv.


satirical verses upon liis friend. To discover the rights
and wrongs of the quarrel is now impossible, though,
unfortunately, one thing is clear, namely, that Pope was
guilty of grossly sacrificing truth in the interests of his
own vanity. \Ve may, indeed, assume, without much risk
of error, that Pope had become too conscious of his own
importance to find pleasure or pride in doctoring another
man's verses. It must remain uncertain how far he show-
ed this resentment to Wycherley openly, or gratified it by

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 16 of 44)