Copyright
John Morley.

English men of letters (Volume 3) online

. (page 17 of 44)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 17 of 44)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


some covert means; and how far, again, he succeeded in
calming Wycherley's susceptibility by his compliments, or
aroused his wrath by more or less contemptuous treatment
of his verses.

A year after the quarrel, Cromwell reported that Wych-
erley had again been speaking in friendly terms of Pope,
and Pope expressed his pleasure with eagerness. lie must,
he said, be more agreeable to himself when agreeable to

O O

Wycherlcy, as the earth was brighter when the sun was
less overcast. Wycherley, it may be remarked, took Pope's
advice by turning some of his verses into prose maxims ;
and they seem to have been at last upon more or less
friendly terms. The final scene of Wycherley's question-
able career, some four years later, is given by Pope in a
letter to his friend, Edward Blount. The old man, he says,
joined the sacraments of marriage and extreme unction.
By one he supposed himself to gain some advantage of
his soul ; by the other, he had the pleasure of saddling his
hated heir and nephew with the jointure of his widow.
When dying, he begged his wife to grant him a last re-
quest, and, upon her consent, explained it to be that she
would never again marry an old man. Sickness, says Pope
in comment, often destroys wit and wisdom, but has sel-
dom the power to remove humour. Wycherley's joke, re-



20 POPE. [CHAP. i.

plies a critic, is contemptible; and yet one feels that the
death scene, with this strange mixture of cynicism, spite,
and superstition, half redeemed by imperturbable good
temper, would not be unworthy of a place in "Wycherley's
own school of comedy. One could wish that Pope had
shown a little more perception of the tragic side of such a
conclusion.

Pope was still almost a boy when he broke with Wych-
erley ; but he was already beginning to attract attention,
and within a surprisingly short time he was becoming
known as one of the first writers of the day. I must now

J

turn to the poems by which this reputation was gained,
and the incidents connected with 'their publication. In
Pope's life, almost more than in that of any other poet,
the history of the author is the history of the man.



CHAPTER II.

FIRST PERIOD OF POPE ? S LITERARY CAREER.

POPE'S rupture with Wycherley took place in the summer
of 1710, when Pope, therefore, was just twenty-two. He
was at this time only known as the contributor of some
small poems to a Miscellany. Three years afterwards
(1713) he was receiving such patronage in his great under-
taking, the translation of Homer, as to prove conclusively
that he was regarded by the leaders of literature as a poet
of very high promise; and two years later (1715) the ap-
pearance of the first volume of his translation entitled him
to rank as the first poet of the day. So rapid a rise to
fame has had few parallels, and was certainly not ap-
proached until Byron woke and found himself famous at
twenty-four. Pope was eager for the praise of remarkable
precocity, and was weak and insincere enough to alter the
dates of some of his writings in order to strengthen his
claim. Yet, even when we accept the corrected accounts
of recent enquirers, there is no doubt that he gave proofs
at a very early age of an extraordinary command of the
resources of his art. It is still more evident that his mer-
its were promptly and frankly recognized by his contem-
poraries. Great men and distinguished authors held out
friendly hands to him ; and he never had to undergo, even
for a brief period, the dreary ordeal of neglect through



22 POPE. [CHAP.

which men of loftier but less popular genius, have been so
often compelled to pass. And yet it unfortunately hap-
priii-d tliat, even in this early time, when success followed
suc< -. . and the young man's irritable nerves might well
have been soothed by the general chorus of admiration, he
excited and returned bitter antipathies, some of which
lasted through his life.

o

Pope's works belong to three distinct periods. The
translation of Homer was the great work of the middle
period of his life. In his later years he wrote the moral
and satirical poems by which he is now best known. The
earlier period, with which I have now to deal, was one of
experimental excursions into various fields of poetry, with
varying success and rather uncertain aim. Pope had al-
ready, as we have seen, gone through the process of " fill-
ing his basket." He had written the epic poem which
happily found its way into the flames. He had translated
many passages that struck his fancy in the classics, es-
pecially considerable fragments of Ovid and Statius. Fol-
lowing Drvden, he had turned some of Chaucer into mod-

ti

ern English ; and, adopting a fashion which had not as
yet quite died of inanition, he had composed certain pas-
t'.trals in the manner of Theocritus and Virgil. These

o

early productions had been written under the eye of Trum-
bull ; they had Leen handed about in manuscript ; Wych-
erley, as already noticed, had shown them to Walsh, him-
self an offender of the same class. Grauiville, afterwards
Lord Lansdowne, another small poet, read them, and pro-
-(-d to see in Pope another Virgil ; whilst Congreve,
Garth, Somers, Halifax, and other men of weight conde-
scended to read, admire, and criticise. Old Tonson, who
published for Dryden, wrote a polite note to Pope,
seventeen, saying that he had seen one of the



ii.] FIRST PERIOD OF TOPE'S LITERARY CAREER. 23

Pastorals in the hands of Congreve and Walsh, " which
was cxtremel} 7 fine," and requesting the honour of printing
it. Three years afterwards it accordingly appeared in
Tonson's Miscellany, a kind of annual, of which the first
numbers had been edited by Dryden. Such miscellanies
more or less discharged the function of a modern maga-

O O

zinc. The plan, said Pope to Wycherley, is very useful to
the poets, " who, like other thieves, escape by getting- into
a crowd." The volume contained contributions from
Buckingham, Garth, and Rowe ; it closed with Pope's Pas-
torals, and opened with another set of pastorals by Am-
brose Philips a combination which, as we shall see, led to
one of Pope's first quarrels.

The Pastorals have been seriously criticised; but they
are, in truth, mere school -boy exercises; they represent
nothing more than so many experiments in versification.
The pastoral form had doubtless been used in earlier hands
to embody true poetic feeling ; but in Pope's time it had
become hopelessly threadbare. The fine gentlemen in wigs
and laced coats amused themselves by writing about
nymphs and " conscious swains," by way of asserting their
claims to elegance of taste. Pope, as a boy, took the mat-
ter seriously, and always retained a natural fondness for a
juvenile performance upon which he had expended great
labour, and which was the chief proof of his extreme pre-
cocity. He invites attention to his own merits, and claims
especially the virtue of propriety. He does not, he tells
us, like some other people, make his roses and daffodils
bloom in the same season, and cause his nightingales to
sing in November ; and he takes particular credit for hav-
ing remembered that there were no wolves in England, and
having accordingly excised a passage in which Alexis
prophesied that those animals would grow milder as they
C 2



24 POPE. [CUAP.

li-tened to the strains of his favourite nymph. When a
man has got so far as to bring to England all the pagan
deities, and rival shepherds contending for bowls and lambs
in alternate strophes, these niceties seem a little out of
place. After swallowing such a camel of an anachronism
as is contained in the following lines, it is ridiculous to
pride oncsel. upon straining at a gnat :
Inspire me, says Strephon,

" Inspire me, Phoebus, in my Delia's praise
"\Vith Waller's strains or Granville's moving lays.
A milk-white bull shall at your altars stand,
That threats a fight, and spurns the rising sand."

Graiivillc would certainly not have felt more surprised at
meeting a wolf than at seeing a milk-white bull sacrificed
to Phoebus on the banks of the Thames. It would be a
more serious complaint that Pope, who can thus admit
anachronisms as daring as any of those which provoked
Johnson in Lycidas, shows none of that exquisite feeling
for rural scenery which is one of the superlative charms
of Milton's early poems. Though country-bred, he talks
about country sights and sounds as if he had been brought
up at Christ's Hospital, and read of them only in Virgil.
But, in truth, it is absurd to dwell upon such points. The
sole point worth notice in the Pastorals is the general
sweetness of the versification. Many corrections show
how carefully Pope had elaborated these early lines, and
by what patient toil he was acquiring the peculiar quali-
ties of style in which he was to become pre-eminent. We
may agree with Johnson that Pope performing upon a
pastoral pipe is rather a ludicrous person, but for mere
practice even nonsense verses have been found useful.
The vonncj gentleman was soon to mve a far more char-



ii.] FIRST PERIOD OF TOPE'S LITERARY CAREER. 25

acteristic specimen of his peculiar powers. Poets, accord-
ing to the ordinary rule, should begin by exuberant fancy,
and learn to prune and refine as the reasoning faculties de-
velopc. But Pope was from the first a conscious and de-
liberate artist. lie had read the fashionable critics of his
time, and had accepted their canons as an embodiment of
irrefragable reason. His head was full of maxims, some
of which strike us as palpable truisms, and others as typ-
ical specimens of wooden pedantry. Dryden had set the
example of looking upon the French critics as authoritative
lawgivers in poetry. Boileau's art of poetry was carefully
studied, as bits of it were judiciously appropriated, by
Pope. Another authority was the great Bossu, who wrote
in 1675 a treatise on epic poetry; and the modern reader
may best judge of the doctrines characteristic of the
school by the nai've pedantry with which Addison, the typ-
ical man of taste of his time, invokes the authority of Bossu
and Aristotle, in his exposition of Paradise Lost. 1 English
writers were treading in the steps of Boileau and Horace.
Koscommon selected for a poem the lively topic of "trans-
lated verse ;'' and Sheffield had written with Drvden an es-

J

say upon satire, and afterwards a more elaborate essay upon
poetry. To these masterpieces, said Addison, another mas-
terpiece was now added by Pope's Essay upon Criticism.
Xot only did Addison applaud, but later critics have spoken
of their wonder at the penetration, learning, and taste ex-
hibited by so young a man. The essay was carefully fin-
ished. Written apparently in 1709, it was published in
1711. This was as short a time, said Pope to Spence, as
he ever let anything of his lie by him ; he no doubt cin-

1 Any poet who followed Bossu's rules, said Voltaire, might be
certain that no one would read him; happily it was impossible to
follow them.



26 POPE. [CHAP.

ploved it, according to his custom, in correcting and revis-
ing, and ho had prepared himself by carefully digesting
the whole in prose. It is, however, written without any
elaborate logical plan, though it is quite sufficiently cohe-
rent for its purpose. The maxims on which Pope chiefly
dwells are, for the most part, the obvious rules which have
been the common property of all generations of critics.
One would scarcely ask for originality in such a case, any
more than one would desire a writer on ethics to invent
new laws of morality. AVe require neither Pope nor Aris-
totle to tell us that critics should not be pert nor preju-
diced ; that fancy should be regulated by judgment ; that
apparent facility comes by long training ; that the sound
should have some conformity to the meaning ; that genius
is often envied ; and that dulness is frequently beyond the
reach of reproof. AVe might even guess, without the au-
thority of Pope, backed by Bacon, that there are some
beauties which cannot be taught bv method, but must be

o v

reached " by a kind of felicity." It is not the less inter-
esting to notice Pope's skill in polishing these rather rusty
sayings into the appearance of novelty. In a familiar line
Pope gives us the view which he would himself apply
in such cases.

" True wit is nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd. 1 '

The only fair question, in short, is whether Pope has
managed to give a lasting form to some of the floating
commonplaces which have more or less suggested them-
selves to every writer. If we apply this test, we must ad-
mit that if the essay upon criticism does not show deep
thought, it shows singular skill in putting old truths.
Pope undeniably succeeded in hitting off many phrases
of marked felicity. lie already showed the power, in



IL] FIRST PERIOD OF POPE'S LITERARY CAREER. 27

which he was probably unequalled, of coining aphorisms
out of commonplace. Few people read the essay now, but
everybody is aware that " fools rush in where angels fear
to tread," and has heard the warning

' O

" A little learning is a dangerous thing,

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :"

maxims which may not commend themselves as strictly
accurate to a scientific reason cr, but which have as much
truth as one can demand from an epigram. And besides
many sayings which share in some degree their merit,
there are occasional passages which rise, at least, to the
height of graceful rhetoric if they are scarcely to be called
poetical. One simile was long famous, and was called by
Johnson the best in the lano-ua^e. It is that in which

o o

the sanguine youth, overwhelmed by a growing percep-
tion of the boundlessness of possible attainments, is com-
pared to the traveller crossing the mountains, and seeing



u



Ilills peep o'er hills and Alps on Alps arise."



The poor simile is pretty well forgotten, but is really a
good specimen of Pope's brilliant declamation.

The essay, however, is not uniformly polished. Be-
tween the happier passages we have to cross stretches of
flat prose twisted into rhyme ; Pope seems to have inten-
tionally pitched his style at a prosaic level as fitter for
didactic purposes ; but besides this we here and there
come upon phrases which are not only elliptical and
slovenly, but defy all grammatical construction. This was
a blemish to which Pope was always strangely liable. It
was perhaps due in part to over-correction, when the con-
text was forgotten and the subject had lost its freshness.
Critics, again, have remarked upon the poverty of the



28 POPE. [CHAP.

rhynu's, and observed tliat lie makes ten rhymes to
"wit" and twelve to "sense." The frequent recurrence
of the words is the more awkward because they are
curiously ambiguous. " AVit r was beginning to receive
its modern meaning; but Pope uses it vaguely as some-
times equivalent to intelligence in general, sometimes to
the poetic faculty, and sometimes to the erratic fancy,
which the true poet restrains by sense. Pope would
have been still more puzzled if asked to define precise-
ly what he meant by the antithesis between nature and
art. They are somehow opposed, yet art turns out to be
only " nature methodized." We have, indeed, a clue for
our guidance ; to study nature, we are told, is the same
thing as to study Homer, and Homer should be read day
and night, with Virgil for a comment and Aristotle for
an expositor. Nature, good sense, Homer, Virgil, and the
Stagy rite all, it seems, come to much the same thing.

It would be very easy to pick holes in this very loose
theory. But it is better to try to understand the point
of view indicated ; for, in truth, Pope is really stating the
assumptions which guided his whole career. No one will
accept his position at the present time ; but any one who
is incapable of, at least, a provisional sympathy, may as
well throw Pope aside at once, and with Pope most con-
tern p o rary 1 i teratu re.

The dominant figure in Pope's day was the AVit. The
wit - taken personally - -was the man who represented
what we now describe by culture or the spirit of the
age. Bright, clear, common sense was for once having
its own way, and tyrannizing over the faculties from

/ ' * d7

which it too often suffers violence. The favoured fac-
ulty never doubted its own qualification for supremacy
in every department. In metaphysics it was triumphing



ii.] FIRST PERIOD OF POPE'S LITERARY CAREER. 29

with Ilobbes and Locke over the remnants of scholasti-
cism ; under Tillotson, it was expelling mystery from re-
lio-ion ; and in art it was declaring war against the extrav-

O ^ ^

agant, the romantic, the mystic, and the Gothic a word
then used as a simple term of abuse. AVit and sense are
but different avatars of the same spirit ; wit was the form
in which it showed itself in coffee-houses, and sense that
in which it appeared in the pulpit or parliament. "When
"Walsh told Pope to be correct, he was virtually advising
him to carry the same spirit into poetry. The classicism
of the time was the natural corollary ; for the classical
models were the historical symbols of the movement
which Pope represented. He states his view very tersely
in the essay. Classical culture had been overwhelmed by
the barbarians, and the monks " finished what the Goths
began." Letters revived when the study of classical
models again gave an impulse and supplied a guidance.

'' At length Erasmus, that great injured name,
The glory of the priesthood and their shame,
Stemm'd the wild torrent of a barbarous age,
And drove these holy Vandals off the stage."

The classical ism of Pope's time was no doubt very dif-
ferent from that of the period of Erasmus ; but in his
view 7 it differed only because the contemporaries of Dry-
den had more thoroughly dispersed the mists of the bar-
barism which still obscured the Shakspearean age, and
from which even Milton or Cowley had not completely
escaped. Dryden and Boileau and the French critics,
with their interpreters, lioscommon, Sheffield, and Walsh,
who found rules in Aristotle, and drew their precedents
from Homer, were at last stating the pure canons of un-
adulterated sense. To this school wit, and sense, and nat-



30 POPE. [CHAP.

urc, ami the classics, all meant pretty much the same.
That was pronounced to be unnatural which was too
sill}', or too far-fetched, or too exalted, to approve itself
to the good sense of a wit ; and the very incarnation
and eternal type of good sense and nature was to be
found in the classics. The test of thorough polish and
refinement was the power of ornamenting a speech with
an appropriate phrase from Horace or Virgil, or prefixing
a Greek motto to an essay in the Spectator. If it was
necessary to give to any utterance an air of philosophical
authority, a reference to Lonmnus or Aristotle was the

/ O

natural device. Perhaps the acquaintance with classics
might not be very profound ; but the classics supplied
at least a convenient symbol for the spirit which had
triumphed against Gothic barbarism and scholastic ped-
antry.

Even the priggish wits of that day were capable of
being bored by didactic poetry, and especially by such
didactic poetry as resolved itself too easily into a string
of maxims not more poetical in substance than the im-
mortal " 'Tis a sin to steal a pin." The essay published
anonymously did not make any rapid success till Pope
sent round copies to well-known critics. Addison's praise
and Dennis's abuse helped, as we shall presently see, to
give it notoriety. Pope, however, returned from criticism
to poetry, and his next performance was in some degree a
fre^h, but far less puerile, performance upon the pastoral
pipe. 1 Nothing could be more natural than for the young
poet to take for a text the forest in which he lived. Dull
as tin- natives might be, their dwelling-place was historical,

Then- is the usual contradiction as to the date of composition
i.f ir;W.xv- Forest. Part seems to have been written early (Pope
Baj - 1 7"i >, and part certainly not before 1712.



ii.] FIRST PERIOD OF POPE'S LITERARY CAREER. 31

and there was an excellent precedent for such a perform-
ance. Pope, as we have seen, was familiar with Milton's
juvenile poems; but such works as the Allegro and Pen-
seroso were too full of the genuine country spirit to suit
his probable audience. Wycherley, whom he frequently
invited to come to Bin field, would undoubtedly have
found Milton a bore. But Sir John Denham, a thor-
oughly masculine, if not, as Pope calls him, a majestic
poet, was a guide whom the Wycherleys would respect.
His Cooper's Hill (in 1642) was the first example of
what Johnson calls local poetry poetry, that is, devoted
to the celebration of a particular place ; and, moreover, it
was one of the early models of the rhythm which became
triumphant in the hands of Dryden. One couplet is still
familiar :

" Though deep, yet clear ; though gentle, yet not dull ;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full."

The poern has some vigorous descriptive touches, but is in
the main a forcible expression of the moral and political
reflections which would be approved by the admirers of
good sense in poetry.

Pope's Windsor Forest, which appeared in the begin-
ning of 1713, is closely and avowedly modelled upon this
original. There is still a considerable infusion of the
puerile classicism of the Pastorals, which contrasts awk-
wardly with Denham's strength, and a silly episode about
the nymph Lodona changed into the river Loddon by Di-
ana, to save her from the pursuit of Pan. But the style
is animated, and the descriptions, though seldom original,
show Pope's frequent felicity of language. Wordsworth,
indeed, was pleased to say that Pope had here introduced

almost the only "new images of internal nature" to be

16



32 POPE. [CHAP.

found between Milton and Thomson. Probably the good
Wordsworth was wishing to do a little bit of excessive
candour. Pope will not introduce his scenery without a
turn suited to the taste of the town :

" Here waving groves a chequer'd scene display,
And part admit and part exclude the day ;
As some coy nymph her lover's fond address,
Nor quite indulges nor can quite repress."

He has some well-turned lines upon the sports of the for-
est, though they are clearly not the lines of a sportsman.
They betray something of the sensitive lad's shrinking from
the rough squires whose only literature consisted of Dur-
fey's songs, and who would have heartily laughed at his
sympathy for a dying pheasant. I may observe in pass-
ing that Pope always showed the true poet's tenderness
for the lower animals, and disgust at bloodshed. He loved
his dog, and said that he would have inscribed over his
grave, " rare Bounce," but for the appearance of ridicul-
ing " rare Ben Jonson." He spoke with horror of a con-
temporary dissector of live dogs, and the pleasantest of his
papers in the Guardian is a warm remonstrance against
cruelty to animals. He "dares not" attack hunting, he
says and, indeed, such an attack requires some courage
even at the present day but he evidently has no sympa-
thy with huntsmen, and has to borrow his description from
Statius, which was hardly the way to get the true local
colour. Windsor Forest, however, like Cooper's Hill,
speedily diverges into historical and political reflections.
The barbarity of the old forest law r s, the poets Denham
and Cowley and Surrey, who had sung on the banks of the
Thames, and the heroes who made Windsor illustrious,
suggest obvious thoughts, put into verses often brilliant,



n.J FIRST PERIOD OF TOPE'S LITERARY CAREER. 33

though sometimes affected, varied by a compliment to
Trumbull and an excessive eulogy of Granvillc, to whom
the poem is inscribed. The whole is skilfully adapted to
the time by a brilliant eulogy upon the peace which was
concluded just as the poem was published. The Whig
poet Tickell, soon to be Pope's rival, was celebrating the
same "lofty theme" on his "artless reed," and introduc-
ing a pretty little compliment to Pope. To readers who
have lost the taste for poetry of this class one poem may
seem about as good as the other ; but Pope's superiority
is plain enough to a reader who will condescend to distin-
guish. His verses are an excellent specimen of his declam-
atory style polished, epigrammatic, and well expressed ;
and, though keeping far below the regions of true poetry,
preserving just that level which would commend them to
the literary statesmen and the politicians at Will's and
Button's. Perhaps some advocate of Free Trade might



Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 17 of 44)