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tions of date and address as mio'ht be convenient, to the

confusion of all biographers and editors ignorant of his
peculiar method of editing. The details of these very dis-
graceful falsifications have been fully described by Mr.
El win, 1 but I turn gladly from this lamentable narrative to
say something of the literary value of the correspondence.
Every critic has made the obvious remark that Pope's
letters are artificial and self-conscious. Pope claimed the
opposite merit. "It is many years ago," he says to Swift
in 1729, "since I wrote as a wit." He smiles to think
' li<>w Curll would be bit were our epistles to fall into his
hands, and how gloriously they would fall short of every in-
jvnious reader's anticipations." Warburton adds in a note
that Pope used to " value himself upon this particular."
It is indeed true that Pope had dropped the boyish affecta-
tion of his letters to Wychcrlcy and Cromwell. But such

1 Pope's Works, vol. i. p. cxxi.


a statement in the mouth of ;i man who plotted to secure
Curll's publication of his letters, with devices elaborate
enough to make the reputation of an unscrupulous diplo-
matist, is of course only one more example of the super-
lative degree of affectation, the affectation of bring unaf-
fected. We should be, indeed, disappointed were we to
expect in Pope's letters what we find in the best specimens
of the art : the charm which belongs to a simple outpour-
ing of friendly feeling in private intercourse; the sweet
playfulness of Cowper, or the grave humour of Gray, or
even the sparkle and brilliance of Walpole's admirable let-
ters. Though Walpole had an eye to posterity, and has
his own mode of affectation, he is for the moment intent
on amusing, and is free from the most annoying blemish
in Pope's writing, the resolution to appear always in full
dress, and to mount as often as possible upon the stilts of
moral self-approbation. All this is obvious to the hasty
reader; and yet I must confess my own conviction that
there is scarcelv a more interesting volume in the lanoriao'e

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than that which contains the correspondence of Swift,
Bolingbroke, and Pope. To enjoy it, indeed, we must not
expect to be in sympathy with the writers. Rather we
must adopt the mental attitude of spectators of a scene of
high comedy - - the comedy which is dashed with satire
and has a tragical side to it. We are behind the scenes


in Vanity Fair, and listening to the talk of three of its
most famous performers, doubting whether they most de-
ceive each other, or the public or themselves. The secret
is an open one for us, now that the illusion which per-
plexed contemporaries has worn itself threadbare.

The most impressive letters are undoubtedly those of
Swift the stern, sad humourist, frowning upon the world
which has rejected him, and covering his wrath with an


affectation, not of fine sentiment, but of misanthropy. A
soured man prefers to turn his worst side outwards. There
aiv j.h rases in his letters which brand themselves upon the
memory like those of no other man; and we are softened


into pity as the strong mind is seen gradually sinking into
decay. The two other sharers in the colloquy are in ef-
fective contrast. We see through Bolingbroke's magnifi-
cent self-deceit; the flowing manners of the statesman
who, though the game is lost, is longing for a favourable
turn of the card, but still affects to solace himself with
philosophy, and wraps himself in dignified reflections upon
the blessings of retirement, contrast with Swift's down-


rio;ht avowal of indignant scorn for himself and mankind.


And yet we have a sense of the man's amazing cleverness,
and regret that he has no chance of trying one more fall
with his antagonists in the open arena. Pope's affectation
is perhaps the most transparent and the most gratuitous.
His career had been pre-eminently successful ; his talents
had found their natural outlet ; and he had only to be


what he apparently persuaded himself that he was, to be
happy in spite of illness. He is constantly flourishing his
admirable moral sense in our faces, dilating upon his sim-
plicity, modesty, fidelity to his friends, indifference to the
charms of fame, till we are almost convinced that he has
imposed upon himself. By some strange piece of leger-
demain he must surely have succeeded in regarding even
his deliberate artifices, with the astonishing masses of
hypocritical falsehoods which they entailed, as in some
way legitimate weapons against a world full of piratical
Curlls and deep laid plots. And, indeed, with all his de-
linquencies, and with all his affectations, there are mo-
ments in which w r e forget to preserve the correct tone of
moral indignation. Every now and then genuine feeling



seams to come to the surface. For a time the superin-
cumbent masses of hypocrisy vanish. In speaking of his
mother or his pursuits he forgets to wear his mask. lie
feels a genuine enthusiasm about his friends ; he Ix-licves
with almost pathetic earnestness in the amazing talents of
Bolingbroke, and the patriotic devotion of the younger
men who are rising up to overthrow the corruptions of
Walpole ; he takes the affectation of his friends as. serious-
ly as a simple-minded man who has never fairly realized
the possibility of deliberate hypocrisy ; and he utters sen-
timents about human life and its objects which, if a little
tainted with commonplace, have yet a certain ring of sin-
cerity, and, as we may believe, were really sincere for the
time. At such moments we seem to see the man behind
the veil the really loveable nature "which could know as


well as simulate feeling. And, indeed, it is this quality
which makes Pope endurable. He was if we must speak
bluntly a liar and a hypocrite ; but the foundation of his
character was not selfish or grovelling. On the contrary, no
man could be more warmly affectionate or more exquisitely
sensitive to many noble emotions. The misfortune was that
his constitutional infirmities, acted upon by unfavourable
conditions, developed his craving for applause and his fear
of censure, till certain morbid tendencies in him assumed
proportions which, compared to the same weaknesses in
ordinary mankind, are as the growth of plants in a tropical
forest to their stunted representatives in the North.



IT is a relief to turn from this miserable record of Pope's
petty or malicious deceptions to the history of his legiti-
mate career. I go back to the period when lie "svas still
in full power. Having finished the Dunciad, he was soon
employed on a more ambitious task. Pope resembled one
of the inferior bodies of the solar system, whose orbit is
dependent upon that of some more massive planet ; arid
having been a satellite of Swift, he was now swept into
the train of the more imposing Bolingbroke. He had
been orio-inally introduced to Bolino-broke by Swift, but

* o /

had probably seen little of the brilliant minister who, in
the first years of their acquaintance, had too many occupa-
tions to give much time to the rising poet. Bolingbroke,
however, had been suffering a long eclipse, whilst Pope
was gathering fresh splendour. In his exile, Bolingbroke,
though never really weaned from political ambition, had
amused himself with superficial philosophical studies. In
political life it was his special glory to extemporize states-
manship without sacrificing pleasure. He could be at once
the- most reckless of rakes and the leading spirit in the
Cabinet or the House of Commons. lie seems to have
thought that philosophical eminence was obtainable in the
sune off-hand fashion, and that a brilliant style would jus-


tifv a man in laying down the law to metaphysicians as
well as to diplomatists and politicians. His philosophical
writings are equally superficial and arrogant, though they
show here and there the practised debater's power of mak-
ing a good point against his antagonist without really
grasping the real problems at issue.

Bolingbroke received a pardon in 1723, and returned to
England, crossing Atterbury, who had just been convicted
of treasonable practices. In 1725 Bolingbroke settled at
Dawley, near Uxbridge, and for the next ten years he was
alternately amusing himself in playing the retired philoso-
pher, and endeavouring, with more serious purpose, to ani-
mate the opposition to Walpole. Pope, who was his fre-
quent guest, sympathized with his schemes, and w r as com-
pletely dazzled by his eminence. He spoke of him with
bated breath, as a being almost superior to humanity.
" It looks," said Pope once, " as if that great man had
been placed here by mistake. When the comet appeared
a month or two ago," he added, " I sometimes fancied that
it might be come to carry him home, as a coach comes to
one's door for other visitors." Of all the graceful compli-
ments in Pope's poetry, none are more ardent or more
obviously sincere than those addressed to this "guide, phi-
losopher, and friend." He delighted to bask in the sun-
shine of the great man's presence. Writing to Swift in
1728, he (Pope) says that he is holding the pen "for my
Lord Bolingbroke," who is reading your letter between
two hay-cocks, with his attention occasionally distracted by
a threatening shower. Bolingbroke is acting the temper-
ate recluse, having nothing for dinner but mutton-broth,
beans and bacon, and a barn-door fowl. Whilst his lord-
ship is running after a cart, Pope snatches a moment to
tell how the day before this noble farmer had engaged a
8 24

]f,o POrE. LI-HAP.

painter f<>r _00/. to give the correct agricultural air to liis
eountrv liall by ornamenting it with trophies of spades,
rakes, and prongs. Pope saw that the zeal for retirement
\\as not free from affectation, but he sat at the teacher's
feet wit ii profound belief in the value of the lessons which
flowed from his lips.

The connexion was to bear remarkable fruit. Under
the direction of Bolingbroke, Pope resolved to compose a
u'l-eat philosophical poem. "Does Pope talk to you," says
Bolingbroke to Swift in 1731, "of the noble work which,
at my instigation, he has begun in such a manner that he
must be convinced by this time I judged better of his tal-
ents than he did ?" And Bolingbroke proceeds to de-
scribe the Essay on Man, of which it seems that three
(out of four) epistles were now finished. The first of
these epistles appeared in 1733. Pope, being apparently
nervous on his first appearance as a philosopher, withheld
his name. The other parts followed in the course of
1733 and 1734, and the authorship was soon avowed.
The Exxoy on Man is Pope's most ambitious performance,
and the one by which he was best known beyond his own
country. It has been frequently translated ; it was imi-
tated both in France and Germany, and provoked a con-
troversy, not like others in Pope's history of the purely
personal kind.

The Essay on Man professes to be a theodicy. Pope,,
with an echo of the Miltonic phrase, proposes to

" Vindicate the ways of God to man."

He i-; thus attempting the greatest task to which poet
>r philosopher can devote himself- -the exhibition of an
and harmonious view of the universe. In a time

when men's minds are dominated bv a definite religious



creed, the poet may hope to achieve success in such an
undertaking without departing from his legitimate meth-
od. His vision pierces to the world hidden from our
senses, and realizes in the transitory present a scene in the
slow development of a divine drama. To make us share
his vision is to give his justification of Providence.
When Milton told the story of the war in heaven and the
fall of man, he gave implicitly his theory of the true rela-
tions of man to his Creator, but the abstract doctrine was
clothed in the flesh and blood of a concrete mythology.

In Pope's day the traditional belief had lost its hold
upon men's minds too completely to be used for imagina-
tive purposes. The story of Adam and Eve would itself
require to be justified or to be rationalized into thin alle-
gory. Nothing was left possessed of any vitality but a
bare skeleton of abstract theology dependent upon argu-
ment instead of tradition, and which might use or might
dispense with a Christian phraseology. Its deity was not
a historical personage, but the name of a metaphysical
conception. For a revelation was substituted a demon-
stration. To vindicate Providence meant no longer to
stimulate imagination by a pure and sublime .rendering of
accepted truths, but to solve certain philosophical prob-
lems, and especiallv the grand difficulty of reconciling the
existence of evil with divine omnipotence and benevolence.

Pope might conceivably have written a really great
poem on these terms, though deprived of the concrete im-
agery of a Dante or a Milton. If he had fairly grasper
some definite conception of the universe, whether panth; (
istic or atheistic, optimist or pessimist, proclaiming a sol.,
tion of the mystery, or declaring all solutions to be im^-
sible, he might have given forcible expression to the c,i
responding emotions. He might have uttered the me. ^


and the confident hope incited in different
by a contemplation of the mysterious world. He
mi "-lit ;i"-aiu conceivably have written an interesting work,

* O

th'n^h it would hardly have been a poem if he had versi-
fied the arguments by which a coherent theory might be
supported. Unluckily, he was quite unqualified for either
undertaking, and, at the same time, he more or less aimed
at both. Anything like sustained reasoning was beyond
his reach. Pope felt and thought by shocks and electric
flashes. He could only obtain a continuous effect when
working clearly upon lines already provided for him, or
simulate one by fitting together fragments struck out at

*/ ~ O

intervals. The defect was aggravated or caused by the
physical infirmities which put sustained intellectual labour
out of the question. The laborious and patient medita-
tion which brings a converging series of arguments to bear
upon a single point was to him as impossible as the pow-
er of devising an elaborate strategical combination to a


da>hing Prince Rupert. The reasonings in the Essay are
confused, contradictory, and often childish. He was equal-
ly far from having assimilated any definite system of
thought. Brought up as a Catholic, he had gradually
swung into vague deistic belief. But he had never stud-
ied any philosophy or theology whatever, and he accepts
in perfect unconsciousness fragments of the most hetero-
geneous systems.

Swift, in verses from which I have already quoted, de-
^cribes his method of composition, which is characteristic
f Pope's habits of work.

" Xow backs of letters, though design'd

For those who more will need 'em,
Are filiM with hints and interlined,
u '' Himself can scarcely read 'em.


" Each atom by some other struck

All turns and motions tries ;
Till in a lump together stuck,
Behold a poem rise !"

It was strange enough that any poem should arise by
such means; but it would have been miraculous if a poem
so constructed had been at once a demonstration and an
exposition of a harmonious philosophical system. The
confession which he made to Warburton will be a suffi-
cient indication of his qualifications as a student. He
says (in 1739) that he never in his life read a line of
Leibnitz, nor knew, till he found it in a confutation of his
Essay, that there was such a term as pre-established har-
mony. That is almost as if a modern reconciler of faith
and science were to say that he had never read a line of
Mr. Darwin, or heard of such a phrase as the struggle for
existence. It was to pronounce himself absolutely dis-
qualified to speak as a philosopher.

How, then, could Pope obtain even an appearance of suc-
cess? The problem should puzzle no one at the present
day. Every smart essayist knows how to settle the most
abstruse metaphysical puzzles after studies limited to the
pages of a monthly magazine ; and Pope was much in
the state of mind of such extemporizing philosophers.
He had dipped into the books which everybody read ;
Locke's Essay, and Shaftesbury's Characteristics, and "\Vol-
laston's Religion of Nature, and Clarke on the Attri-
butes, and Archbishop King on the Origin of Evil, had
probably amused his spare moments. They were all, we
may suppose, in Bolingbroke's library ; and if that pass-
ino- shower commemorated in Pope's letter drove them
back to the house, Bolingbroke might discourse from the
page which happened to be open, and Pope would try to


v.T-ifv it on the back of an envelope. 1 Xor must \ve
forget, like some of his commentators, that after all Pope
\\a- an exceedingly clever man. His rapidly perceptive
mind was fully qualified to imbibe the crude versions of
philosophic theories which float upon the surface of ordi-
nary talk, and are not always so inferior to their proto-
tvpes in philosophic qualities as philosophers would have
us believe. He could by snatches seize with admirable


quickness the general spirit of a doctrine, though unable
to sustain himself at a hio-h intellectual level for anv

v^ /

length of time. He was ready with abundance of poet-
ical illustrations, not, perhaps, very closely adapted to the
logic, but capable of being elaborated into effective pas-
sages ; and, finally, Pope had always a certain number of
more or less appropriate commonplaces or renderings into
verse of some passages which had struck him in Pascal
or Rochefoucauld, or Bacon, all of them favourite authors,
and which could be wrought into the structure at a slight

^ o

cost of coherence. By such means he could put togeth-
er a poem, which was certainly not an organic whole, but
which might contain many striking sayings and passages
of great rhetorical effect.

The logical framework was, we may guess, supplied
mainly by Bolingbroke. Bathurst told Warton that Bo-
lingbroke had given Pope the essay in prose, and that
Pope had only turned it into verse; and Mallet a friend
of both is said to have seen the very manuscript from
which Pope worked. Johnson, on hearing this from Bos-
wrll, remarked that it must be an overstatement. Pope
might have had from Bolingbroke the "philosophical

niina" of the essay, but he must, at least, have con-

' Xo letter with an envelope could give him more delight," says

vii. J THE ESSAY UN MAN. 165

tributed the " poetical imagery," and have had more in-
dependent power than the story implied. It is, indeed,
impossible accurately to fix the relations of the teacher
and his disciple. Pope acknowledged in the strongest
possible terms his dependence upon Bolingbroke, and
Bolingbroke claims with equal distinctness the position
of instigator and inspirer. His more elaborate philo-
sophical works are in the form of letters to Pope, and
profess to be a redaction of the conversations which they
had had together. These were not written till after the
Essay on Man; but a series of fragments appear to rep-
resent what he actually set down for Pope's guidance.
They are professedly addressed to Pope. " I write," he
says (fragment 65), "to you and for you, and you would
think yourself little obliged to me if I took the pains of
explaining in prose what you would not think it necessa-
ry to explain in verse " that is, the free-will puzzle. The
manuscripts seen by Mallet may probably have been a com-
monplace book in which Bolingbroke had set down some
of these fragments, by way of instructing Pope, and pre-

pariuo- for his own more systematic work. No reader of


the frao-ments can, I think, doubt as to the immediate

O 7

source of Pope's inspiration. Most of the ideas ex-
pressed were the common property of many contempo-
rary writers, but Pope accepts the particular modification
presented by Bolingbroke. 1 Pope's manipulation of these
materials causes much of the Essay on Man to resemble
(as Mr. Pattison puts it) an exquisite mosaic work. A
detailed examination of his mode of transmutation would

1 It would be out of place to discuss this in detail ; but I may say
that Pope's crude theory of the state of nature, his psychology as to
reason and instinct, and self-love, and his doctrine of the scale of
beings, all seem to have the specific Bolingbroke stamp.

106 POPE. [CHAP.

l>e a curious study in the technical secrets of literary exe-
cution. A specimen or two will sufficiently indicate the
ijvncral character of Pope's method of constructing his

The forty -third fragment of Boliugbroke is virtually a
prose version of much of Pope's poetry. A few phrases
will exhibit the relation :

" Through worlds unnumber'd, though the God be known,
'Tis ours to trace Him only in our own.
He who through vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one univei'se,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What varied being peoples every star,
May tell why Heaven has made us what we are.
But of this frame, the bearings and the ties,
The strong connexions, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Looked through, or can a part contain the whole ?"

" The universe," I quote only a few phrases from Bo-
lingbroke, "is an immense aggregate of systems. Every
one of these, if we may judge by oar own, contains several ;
and every one of these again, if we may judge by our own,
is made, up of a multitude of different modes of being, an-
imated and inanimated, thinking and unthinking . . . but all

o -j

concurring in one common system. . . . Just so it is with
iv<pect to the various systems and systems of systems that
compose the universe. As distant as they are, and as dif-
ferent as we may imagine them to be, they are all tied
together by relations and connexions, gradations, and de-
l>< inlfiir'ics" The verbal coincidence is here as marked as
the coincidence in argument. Warton refers to an elo-
quent passage in Shaftesbury, which contains a similar


thought; but one can hardly doubt that Bolingbroke \\a>
in this case the immediate source. A quaint passage a
little farther on, in which Pope represents man as com-
plaining because he has not " the strength of bulls or the
fur of bears," may be traced with e<jual plausibility to
Shaftesbury or to Sir Thomas Browne ; but I have not
noticed it in Bolino-broke.


One more passage will be sufficient. Pope asks whether
we are to demand the suspension of laws of nature when-
ever they might produce a mischievous result ? Is Etna
to cease an eruption to spare a sage, or should " new mo-
tions be impressed upon sea and air " for the advantage
of blameless Bethel ?

" When the loose mountain trembles from on high,
Shall gravitation cease, if you go by ?
Or some old temple, nodding to its fall,
For Chartres' head reserve the hanging wall ?"

Chartres is Pope's typical villain. This is a terse ver-
sion, with concrete cases, of Bolingbroke's vaguer gener-
alities. " The laws of gravitation," he says, " must some-
times be suspended (if special Providence be admitted),
and sometimes their effect must be precipitated. The
tottering edifice must be kept miraculously from falling,
whilst innocent men lived in it or passed under it, and the
fall of it must be as miraculously determined to crush the
guilty inhabitant or passenger." Here, again, we have the
alternative of Wollaston, who uses a similar illustration,
and in one phrase comes nearer to Pope. He speaks of
" new T motions being impressed upon the atmosphere."
We may suppose that the two friends had been dipping
into Wollaston together. Elsewhere Pope seems to have
stolen for himself. In the beginning of the second epis-
M 8*

108 POPE. [CHAP.

tie, P<>p.\ in describing man as "the glory, jest, and rid-
d!' 1 of tin- world," is simply versifying- Paseal ; and a little
farther on, when he speaks of reason as the wind and pas-

;i as the gale on life's vast ocean, he is adapting his
I'oinparison from Locke's treatise on government.

If all such cases were adduced, we should have nearly
picked the argumentative part of the essay to pieces; but
Bolingbroke supplies throughout the most characteristic
element. The fragments cohere by external cement, not
by an internal unity of thought; and Pope too often de-
scends to the level of mere satire, or indulges in a quaint

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 27 of 44)