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try upon a modern audience the lines in which Pope ex-
presses his aspiration in a foot-note that London may one
day become a " FREE PORT." There is at least not one
antiquated or obscure phrase in the whole. Here are half
a dozen lines :

" The time shall come, when, free as seas and wind,
Unbounded Thames shall flow for all mankind,
Whole nations enter with each swelling tide,
And seas but join the regions they divide ;
Earth's distant ends our glory shall behold,
And the new world launch forth to seek the old."

In the next few years Pope found other themes for the
display of his declamatory powers. Of the Tcmph of
Fame (1715), a frigid imitation of Chaucer, I need only
say that it is one of Pope's least successful performances ;
but I must notice more fully two rhetorical poems which


d in 1717. These were the Elegy to the Memory
of an Unfortunate Lady and the Eloisa to Abelard. Both
poems, and especially the last, have received the warmest
pniix'.s from Pope's critics, and even from critics who
were most opposed to his school. They are, in fact, his
chief performances of the sentimental kind. Written in
his youth, and yet when his powers of versification had
reached their fullest maturity, they represent an element
generally absent from his poetry. Pope was at the period
in which, if ever, a poet should sing of love, and in which
we expect the richest glow and fervour of youthful imagi-
nation. Pope was neither a Burns, nor a Byron, nor a
Keats; but here, if anywhere, we should find those quali-
ties in which he has most affinity to the poets of passioi.
or of sensuous emotion, not soured by experience or pu-
rified by reflection. The motives of the two poems were
skilfully chosen. Pope as has already appeared to some
extent was rarelv original in his designs: he liked to

*' O O

have the outlines at least drawn for him, to be filled with
his own colouring. The Eloisa to Abelard was founded
upon a translation from the French, published in 1714 by
Hughes (author of the Siege of Damascus), which is itself
a manipulated translation from the famous Latin originals.
Pope, it appears, kept very closely to the words of the
English translation, and in some places has done little
more than versify the prose, though, of course, it is com-
pressed, rearranged, and modified. The Unfortunate Lady
has been the cause of a good deal of controversy. Pope's
elegy implies, vaguely enough, that she had been cruelly
treated by her guardians, and had committed suicide in
x.'inc foreign country. The verses, as commentators de-


cided, showed such genuine feeling, that the story narrated
in them must have been authentic, and one of his own


correspondents (Caryll) begged him for an explanation of
the facts. Pope gave no answer, but left a posthumous
note to an edition of his letters calculated, perhaps intend-
ed, to mystify future inquirers. The lady, a Mrs. Weston,
to whom the note pointed, did not die till 1724, and could
therefore not have committed suicide in 1717. The mys-
tification was childish enough, though, if Pope had com-
mitted no worse crime of the kind, one would not consider
him to be a very grievous offender. The inquiries of Mr.
Dilke, who cleared up this puzzle, show that there were, in
fact, two ladies Mrs. Weston and a Mrs. Cope known to
Pope about this time, both of whom suffered under some
domestic persecution. Pope seems to have taken up their
cause with energy, and sent money to Mrs. Cope when, at
a later period, she was dying abroad in great distress. His
zeal seems to have been sincere and generous, and it is pos-
sible enough that the elegy was a reflection of his feelings,
though it suggested an imaginary state of facts. If this

_* d?o o u/

be so, the reference to the lady in his posthumous note
contained some relation to the truth, though if taken too

' O

literally it would be misleading.

The poems themselves are, beyond all doubt, impres-
sive compositions. They are vivid and admirably worked.
" Here," says Johrjson of the Eloisa to Abclard, the most
important of the two, " is particularly observable the curi-
osa felicitas, a fruitful soil and careful cultivation. Here
is no crudeness of sense, nor asperity of language." So far
there can be no dispute. The style has the highest de-
gree of technical perfection, and it is generally added that
the poems are as pathetic as they are exquisitely written.
Bowles, no hearty lover of Pope, declared the Eloisa to be
" infinitely superior to everything of the kind, ancient or
modern." The tears shed, says Hazlitt of the same poem,


" arc drops gushing from the heart ; the words are burn-
in<>- si"-lis breathed from the soul of love." And De Quin-

o ^ *

TV ends an eloquent criticism by declaring that the "lyr-
ical tumult of the changes, the hope, the tears, the rapture,
the penitence, the despair, place the reader in tumultuous
sympathy with the poor distracted nun." The pathos of
the Unfortunate Lady has been almost equally praised,
and I may quote from it a famous passage which Mackin-
tosh repeated with emotion to repel a charge of coldness
brought against Pope :

" By foreign hands thy dying eyes were closed,
By foreign hands thy decent limbs composed,
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorn'd,
By strangers honourd and by strangers mourn'd !
What though no friends in sable weeds appear,
Grieve for an hour, perhaps, then mourn a year,
And bear about the mockery of woe
To midnight dances and the public show ?
What though no weeping loves thy ashes grace,
Xor polish'd marble emulate thy face ?
What though no sacred earth allow thee room,
Xor hallow'd dirge be mutter'd o'er thv tomb ?


Yet shall thy grave with rising flowers be dress'd,
And the green turf lie lightly on thy breast ;
There shall the morn her earliest tears bestow,
There the first roses of the year shall blow ;
While angels with their silver wings o'ershade

The ground, now sacred by thy reliques made."

The more elaborate poetry of the Eloisa, is equally polish-
ed throughout, and too much praise cannot easily be be-
stowed upon the skill with which the romantic scenery of
the convent is indicated in the background, and the force
with which Pope has given the revulsions of feeling of
his unfortunate heroine from earthly to heavenly love, and


from keen remorse to renewed gusts of overpowering pas-
sion. All this may be said, and without opposing high
critical authority. And yet, I must also say, whether with
or without authority, that I, at least, can read the poems
without the least " disposition to cry," and that a single
pathetic touch of Cowper or Wordsworth strikes incom-
-parably deeper. And if I seek for a reason, it seems to
be simply that Pope never crosses the undefinable, but yet
ineffaceable, line which separates true poetry from rheto-
ric. The Uloisa ends rather flatly by one of Pope's char-
acteristic aphorisms. " He best can paint them (the woes,
that is, of Eloisa) who shall feel them most; 1 ' and it is
characteristic, by the way, that even in these his most im-
passioned verses, the lines which one remembers are of the
same epigrammatic stamp, e.g.:

" A heap of dust alone remains of thee,
'Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be !

" I mourn the lover, not lament the fault.

" How happy is the blameless vestal's lot,
The world forgetting, by the world forgot."

The worker in moral aphorisms cannot forget himself even
in the full swino; of his fervid declamation. I have no


doubt that Pope so far exemplified his own doctrine that
he truly felt whilst he was writing. His feelings make
him eloquent, but they do not enable him to " snatch a
grace beyond the reach of art," to blind us for a moment
to the presence of the consummate workman, judiciously
blending his colours, heightening his effects, and skilfully
managing his transitions or consciously introducing an
abrupt outburst of a new mood. The smoothness of the
verses imposes monotony even upon the varying passions
which are supposed to struggle in Eloisa's breast. It is


not merely our knowledge that Pope is speaking dramat-
ii-ally which prevents us from receiving the same kind of
impressions as we receive from poetry such, for example,
as some of Cow r per's minor pieces into which we know
that a man is really putting his whole heart. The com-
parison would not be fair, for in such cases we are moved
by knowledge of external facts as well as by the poetic
power. But it is simply that Pope always resembles an
orator whose gestures are studied, and who thinks, while
he is speaking, of the fall of his robes and the attitude
of his hands. He is throughout academical ; and though
knowing with admirable nicety how grief should be rep-
resented, and what have been the expedients of his best
predecessors, he misses the one essential touch of sponta-
neous impulse.

One other blemish is perhaps more fatal to the popu-
larity of the JEloisa. There is a taint of something un-
wholesome and effeminate. Pope, it is true, is only fol-
lowing the lanimao;e of the orio-inal in the most offensive

o o o o

passages ; but we see too plainly that he has dwelt too
fondly upon those passages, and worked them up with es-
pecial care. We need not be prudish in our judgment of
impassioned poetry ; but when the passion has this false
ring, the ethical coincides with the aesthetic objection.

I have mentioned these poems here, because they seem
to be the development of the rhetorical vein which ap-
peared in the earlier work. But I have passed over an-
other work which has sometimes been regarded as his
masterpiece. A Lord Petre had offended a Miss Fermor
by stealing a lock of her hair. She thought that he
showed more gallantry than courtesy, and some unpleas-
ant feeling resulted between the families. Pope's friend,
< 'aryll, thought that it might be appeased if the young


poet would turn the whole affair into friendly ridicule.
Nobody, it might well be supposed, had a more dexterous
touch ; and a brilliant trifle from his hands, just fitted for
the atmosphere of drawing-rooms, would be a convenient
peace-offering, and was the very thing in which he might
be expected to succeed. Pope accordingly set to w r ork at
a dainty little mock-heroic, in which he describes, in play-
ful mockery of the conventional style, the fatal coffee-
drinking at Hampton, in which the too daring peer appro-
priated the lock. The poem received the praise which it
well deserved ; for certainly the young poet had executed
his task to a nicety. No more brilliant, sparkling, viva-
cious trifle is to be found in our literature than the Rape
of the Lock, even in this early form. Pope received per-
mission from the lady to publish it in Lintofs Miscellany
in 1712, and a wider circle admired it, though it seems
that the lady and her family began to think that young
Mr. Pope was making rather too free with her name.
Pope meanwhile, animated by his success, hit upon a sin-
gularly happy conception, by which he thought that the
poem might be rendered more important. The solid
critics of those days were much occupied with the ma-
chinery of epic poems ; the machinery being composed of
the gods and goddesses who, from the days of Homer,
had attended to the fortunes of heroes. He had hit upon
a curious French book, the Comte de Gabalis, which pro-
fesses to reveal the mysteries of the Rosicrucians, and it
occurred to him that the elemental sylphs and gnomes
would serve his purpose admirably. He spoke of his new
device to Addison, who administered and there is not
the slightest reason for doubting his perfect sincerity and
good meaning a little dose of cold water. The poern,
as it stood, was a "delicious little thing" merum sal


D 3


and it would be a pity to alter it. Pope, however, ad-
hered to his plan, made a splendid success, and thought
that Addison must have heen prompted by some mean
motive. The Rape of the Lock appeared in its new form,
with >ylphs and gnomes, and an ingenious account of a
game at cards and other improvements, in 1714. Pope
declared, and critics have agreed, that he never showed
more skill than in the remodelling of this poem ; and it
has ever since held a kind of recognized supremacy amongst
the productions of the drawing-room muse.

The reader must remember that the so-called heroic
style of Pope's period is now hopelessly effete. No hu-
man bein would care about machinery and the rules of


Bossu, or read without utter weariness the mechanical im-
itations of Homer and Virgil which were occasionally at-
tempted by the Blackmores and other less ponderous ver-
sifiers. The shadow grows dim with the substance. The
burlesque loses its point when we care nothing for the
original; and, so far, Pope's bit of filigree-work, as Haz-
litt calls it, has become tarnished. The very mention of
beaux and belles suggests the kind of feeling with which
we disinter fragments of old-world finery from the depths
of an ancient cabinet, and even the wit is apt to sound
wearisome. And further, it must be allowed to some
hostile critics that Pope has a worse defect. The poem
is, in effect, a satire upon feminine frivolity. It continues
the strain of mockery against hoops and patches and their
wearers, which supplied Addison and his colleagues with
the materials of so many Spectators. I think that even
in Addison there is something which rather jars upon us.
His persiflage is full of humour and kindliness, but under-
lying it there is a tone of superiority to women which is
sometimes offensive. It is taken for granted that a worn-


an is a fool, or at least should be flattered if any man
condescends to talk sense to her. With Pope this tone
becomes harsher, and the merciless satirist begins to show
himself. In truth, Pope can be inimitably pungent, but
he can never be simply playful. Addison was too conde-
scending with his pretty pupils ; but under Pope's courte-
sy there lurks contempt, and his smile has a disagreeable
likeness to a sneer. If Addison's manner sometimes sug-
gests the blandness of a don who classes women with the
inferior beings unworthy of the Latin grammar, Pope sug-
gests the brilliant wit whose contempt has a keener edge
from his resentment against fine ladies blinded to his gen-
ius by his personal deformity.

Even in his dedication, Pope, with unconscious imper-
tinence, insults his heroine for her presumable ignorance
of his critical jargon. His smart epigrams want but a
slio-ht chano-e of tone to become satire. It is the same

o O

writer who begins an essay on women's characters by tell-
ing a woman that her sex is a compound of

" Matter too soft a lasting mask to bear ;
And best distinguished by black, brown, or fair,"

and communicates to her the pleasant truth that
" Every woman is at heart a rake."

Women, in short, are all frivolous beings, whose one gen-
uine interest is in love-making. The same sentiment is
really implied in the more playful lines in the Rape of the
Lock. The sylphs are warned by omens that some mis-
fortune impends ; but they don't know what.

" Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law,
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw ;
Or stain her honour or her new brocade,
Forget her prayers or miss a masquerade ;


Or lose her heart or necklace at a ball,

Or whether heaven has doom'd that Shock must fall."

"We can understand that Miss Fermor would feel such
raillery to be equivocal. It may be added, that an equal
want of delicacy is implied in the mock-heroic battle at
the end, where the ladies are gifted with an excess of
screaming power :

" ' Restore the lock !' she cries, and all around
' Restore the lock,' the vaulted roofs rebound
Not fierce Othello in so loud a strain
Roar'd for the handkerchief that caused his pain."

These faults, though far from trifling, are yet felt only
as blemishes in the admirable beauty and brilliance of the
poem. The successive scenes are given with so firm and
clear a touch there is such a sense of form, the language
is such a dexterous elevation of the ordinary social twaddle
into the mock-heroic, that it is impossible not to recognize
a consummate artistic power. The dazzling display of
true wit and fancy blinds us for the time to the want of
that real tenderness and humour which would have soft-
ened some harsh passages, and given a more enduring
charm to the poetry. It has, in short, the merit that be-
]ongs to any work of art which expresses in the most fin-
ished form the sentiment characteristic of a given social
phase ; one deficient in many of the most ennobling in-
fluences, but yet one in which the arts of converse repre-
sent a very high development of shrewd sense refined into
vivid wit. And w r e may, I think, admit that there is some
foundation for the genealogy that traces Pope's Ariel back
to his more elevated ancestor in the Tempest. The later
Ariel, indeed, is regarded as the soul of a coquette, and is
almost an allegory of the spirit of poetic fancy in slavery
.to polished society.


" Gums and pomatums shall his flight restrain
While clogg'd he beats his silken wings in vain."

Pope's Ariel is a parody of the ethereal being into
whom Shakspeare had refined the ancient fairy ; but it is
a parody which still preserves a sense of the delicate and
graceful. The ancient race, which appeared for the last
time in this travesty of the fashion of Queen Anne, still
showed some touch of its ancient beauty. Since that
time no fairy has appeared without being hopelessly child-
ish or affected.

Let us now turn from the poems to the author's person-
al career during the same period. In the remarkable au-
tobiographic poem called the Epistle to Arbuthnot, Pope
speaks of his early patrons and friends, and adds

" Soft were my numbers ; who could take offence
When pure description held the place of sense ?
Like gentle Fanny's was my flow'ry theme,
A painted mistress or a purling stream.
Yet then did Gildon draw his venal quill
I wish'd the man a dinner, and sat still.
Yet then did Dennis rave in furious fret ;
I never answer'd, I was not in debt."

Pope's view of his own career suggests the curious
problem : how it came to pass that so harmless a man
should be the butt of so many hostilities ? How could
any man be angry with a writer of gentle pastorals and
versified love-letters? The answer of Pope was, that this
was the normal state of things. " The life of a wit," he
says, in the preface to his works, " is a warfare upon
earth ;" and the warfare results from the hatred of men
of genius natural to the dull. Had any one else made
such a statement, Pope would have seen its resemblance to
the complaint of the one reasonable juryman overpow-


<-iv<l by eleven obstinate fellows. But we may admit that
an intensely sensitive nature is a bad qualification for a
public career. A man who ventures into the throng of
competitors without a skin will be tortured by every
touch, and suffer the more if he turns to retaliate.

Pope's first literary performances had not been so harm-
less as he suggests. Amongst the minor men of letters of
the day was the surly John Dennis. He was some thirty
years Pope's senior ; a writer of dreary tragedies which
had gained a certain success by their AVhiggish tenden-
cies, and of ponderous disquisitions upon critical questions,
not much cruder in substance though heavier in form


than many utterances of Addison or Steele. He could,
however, snarl out some shrewd things when provoked,
and was known to the most famous wits of the day. He
had corresponded with Dryden, Congreve, and Wycher-
ley, and published some of their letters. Pope, it seems,
had been introduced to him by Cromwell, but they had
met only two or three times. When Pope had become
ashamed of following Wycherley about like a dog, he
would soon find out that a Dennis did not deserve the
homage of a rising genius. Possibly Dennis had said
something of Pope's Pastorals, and Pope had probably
been a witness, perhaps more than a mere witness, to
some passage of arms in which Dennis lost his temper.
In mere youthful impertinence he introduced an offensive
touch in the Essay upon Criticism. It would be well, he
said, if critics could advise authors freely,

' But Appius reddens at each word you speak,
And stares, tremendous, with a threatening eve,
Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry."

The name Appius referred to Dennis's tragedy of Ap~


phis and Virginia, a piece now recollected solely by the
fact that poor Dennis had invented some new thunder for
the performance ; and by his piteous complaint against
the actors for afterwards " stealing his thunder," had
started a proverbial expression. Pope's reference stung
Dennis to the quick. He replied by a savage pamphlet,
pulling Pope's essay to pieces, and hitting some real blots,
but diverging into the coarsest personal abuse. Not con-
tent with saying in his preface that he was attacked with
the utmost falsehood and calumny by a little affected hyp-
ocrite, who had nothing in his mouth but truth, candour,
and good-nature, he reviled Pope for his personal defects ;
insinuated that he was a hunch- backed toad; declared
that he was the very shape of the bow of the god of love ;
that he might be thankful that he was born a modern,


for, had he been born of Greek parents, his life would have
been no longer than that of one of his poems, namely,
half a dav ; and that his outward form, however like a


monkey's, could not deviate more from the average of
humanity than his mind. These amenities save Pope his

J *-

first taste of good, savage, slashing abuse. The revenge
was out of all proportion to the offence. Pope, at first,
seemed to take the assault judiciously. He kept silence,
and simply marked some of the faults exposed by Dennis
for alteration. But the wound rankled, and when an op-
portunity presently offered itself, Pope struck savagely at
his enemy. To show how this came to pass, I must rise
from poor old Dennis to a more exalted literary sphere.

The literary world, in which Dryden had recently been,
and Pope was soon to be, the most conspicuous figure,
was for the present under the mild dictatorship of Addi-
son. We know Addison as one of the most kindly and
delicate of humourists, and we can perceive the gentleness


which made him one of the most charming of companions
in a small society. His sense of the ludicrous saved him
from the disagreeable ostentation of powers which were
never applied to express bitterness of feeling or to edge
angrv satire. The reserve of his sensitive nature made ac-
cess difficult, but he was so transparently modest and un-
assuming that his shyness was not, as is too often the case,
mistaken for pride. It is easy to understand the posthu-
mous affection which Macaulay has so eloquently express-
ed, and the contemporary popularity which, according to
Swift, would have made people unwilling to refuse him
had he asked to be king. And yet I think that one can-
not read Addison's praises without a certain recalcitration,
like that which one feels in the case of the model boy
who wins all the prizes, including that for good conduct.
It is hard to feel very enthusiastic about a virtue whose
dictates coincide so precisely with the demands of deco-
rum, and which leads by so easy a path to reputation and
success. Popularity is more often significant of the tact
which makes a man avoid giving offence, than of the
warm impulses of a generous nature. A good man who
mixes with the world ouo-ht to be hated, if not to hate.


But, whatever we may say against his excessive goodness,
Addison deserved and received universal esteem, which in
some cases became enthusiastic. Foremost amongst his
admirers was the warm-hearted, reckless, impetuous Steele,
the typical Irishman ; and amongst other members of his
little senate - as Pope called it - were Ambrose Philips
and Tickell, young men of letters and sound Whig poli-
tics, and more or less competitors of Pope in literature.
\\ hen Pope was first becoming know r n in London the
"\Vhi;jx \\crc out of power; Addison and his friends were
generally t<> be found at Button's Coffee-house in the af-

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 18 of 44)