John Morley.

English men of letters (Volume 3) online

. (page 28 of 44)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 28 of 44)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

conceit or palpable sophistry. Yet it would be very un-
just to ignore the high qualities which are to be found
in this incongruous whole. The style is often admirable.
\Yhen Pope is at his best every word tells. His precision
and firmness of touch enables him to get the greatest pos-
sible meaning into a narrow compass. He uses only one
epithet, but it is the right one, and never boggles and
patches, or, in his own phrase, " blunders round about a
meaning." "\Yarton gives, as a specimen of this power, the
lines :

" But errs not nature from this gracious end
From burning suns when livid deaths descend,
When earthquakes swallow or when tempests sweep
Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep ?"

And Mr. Pattison reinforces the criticism by quoting Vol-
taire's feeble imitation :

" Quand des vents du midi les funestfs haleiues
De semence de rnort out inonde nos plaines,
Direz-vous que jamais le ciel en son courroux
Ne laissa la saute se'journer panni noii. V"

It is true that, in the effort to be compressed, Pope has
here and there cut to the quick and suppressed essential


parts of speech, till the lines can only be construed by our
independent knowledge of their meaning. The famou.-


" Man never is but always to be blest,"

is an example of defective construction, though his lan-
guage is often tortured by more elliptical phras< -.' Tin-
power of charging lines with great fulness of meaning
enables Pope to soar for brief periods into genuine and
impressive poetry. Whatever his philosophical weakm
and his moral obliquity, he is often moved by genuine
emotion. He has a vein of generous sympathy for human
sufferings and of righteous indignation against bigots, ami
if he only half understands his own optimism, that " what-
ever is is right," the vision, rather poetical than philosoph-
ical, of a harmonious universe lifts him at times into a
region loftier than that of frigid and pedantic platitude.
The most popular passages were certain purple patches,
not arising very spontaneously or with much relevance,
but also showing something more than the practised rhet-
orician. The "poor Indian" in one of the most highly-
polished paragraphs

u Who thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company/'

intrudes rather at the expense of logic, and is a decidedly
conventional person. But this passage has a certain glow

1 Perhaps the most curious example, too long for ([notation, is a
passage near the end of the last epistle, in which he sums up hi-
moral system by a series of predicates for which it is impossible tu
find any subject. One couplet runs

" Xever elated whilst one man's depress'd,
Never dejected whilst another's blest."

It is impressive, but it is quite impossible to discover by the rules
grammatical construction who is to be never elated and depressed.

1 70 POPE. [CHAP.

<>f fine humanity, and is touched with real pathos. A fur-
tlier pa^sigo or two may sufficiently indicate his higher
jiialiti->. In the end of the third epistle Pope is discuss-
in g the origin of government and the state of nature, and
discussing them in such a wav as to show conclusively that

** - *

lie docs not in the least understand the theories in ques-
tion or their application. His state of Nature is a sham
reproduction of the golden age of poets, made to do duty
in a scientific speculation. A flimsy hypothesis learnt
from Bolingbroke is not improved when overlaid with
Pope's conventional ornamentation. The imaginary his-
tory proceeds to relate the growth of superstition, which
destroys the primeval innocence ; but why or when does
not very clearly appear ; yet, though the general theory is
incoherent, he catches a distinct view of one aspect of the
question, and expresses a tolerably trite view of the ques-
tion with singular terseness. "Who, he asks,

" First taught souls enslaved and realms undone,
The enormous faith of many made for one?"

He replies,

" Force first made conquest, and that conquest law ;
Till Superstition taught the tyrant awe,
Then shared the tyranny, then lent it aid,
And gods of conquerors, slaves of subjects made ;
She, 'mid the lightning's blaze and thunder's sound,
When rock'd the mountains and when groan'd the ground,
She taught the weak to trust, the proud to pray
To Power unseen and mightier far than they;
She from the rending earth and bursting skies
Saw gods descend and fiends infernal rise ;
There fix'd the dreadful, there the blest abodes ;
Kfiir made her devils, and weak hope her gods ;
Gods partial, changeful, passionate, unjust,
Whose attributes were rage, revenge, or lust;


Such as the souls of cowards might conceive,
And, framed like tyrants, tyrants would believe."

If the test of poetry were the power of expressing a
theory more closely and pointedly than prose, such writing
would take a very high place. Some popular philosophers
would make a sounding chapter out of those sixteen lines.

The Essay on Man brought Pope into difficulties. The
central thesis, " whatever is is right," might be understood
in various senses, and in some sense it would be accepted
by every theist. But, in Bolingbroke's teaching, it re-
ceived a heterodox application, and in Pope's imperfect
version of Bolinffbroke the taint was not removed. The


logical outcome of the rationalistic theory of the time was
some form of pantheism, and the tendency is still more
marked in a poetical statement, where it w r as difficult to
state the refined distinctions by which the conclusion is
averted. When theology is regarded as demonstrable by
reason, the need of a revelation ceases to be obvious. The
optimistic view, which sees the proof of divine order in
the vast harmony of the whole visible world, throws into
the background the darker side of the universe reflected
in the theological doctrines of human corruption, and the
consequent need of a future judgment in separation of
good from evil. I need not inquire whether any optimis-
tic theory is really tenable ; but the popular version of the
creed involved the attempt to ignore the evils under which
all creation groans, and produced in different minds the
powerful retort of Butler's Analogy, and the biting sar-
casm of Voltaire's Candide. Pope, accepting the doctrine
without any perception of these difficulties, unintentional-
ly fell into sheer pantheism. He was not yielding to the
logical instinct which carries out a theory to its legitimate
development ; but obeying the imaginative impulse which

172 POPE. [CHAP.

annt st<>p to listen to the usual qualifications and safe-
guards of the orthodox reasoncr. Tlic best passages in
the essay are those in which he is frankly pantheistic, and
is swept, like Shaftesbury, into enthusiastic assertion of the
universal harmony of things.

"All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul ;
That changed thro' all and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth as in the ethereal frame ;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees ;
Lives thro' all life, extends thro' all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent ;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart ;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns ;
To him, no high, no low, no great, no small,
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all."

In spite of some awkward phrases (hair and heart is a
vile antithesis !), the passage is eloquent, but can hardly be
called orthodox. And it was still worse when Pope un-
drrtook to show that even evil passions and vices were part
>f the harmony; that "a Borgia and a Catiline" were as
much a part of the divine order as a plague or an earth-
quake, and that self-love and lust were essential to social

Pope's own religious position is characteristic and easi-
ly definable. If it is not quite defensible on the strictest
principles of plain speaking, it is also certain that we could
not condemn him without condemning many of the best
and most catholic-spirited of men. The dogmatic system
in which he had presumably been educated had softened
under the influence of the cultivated thought of the dav.

vii.] THE KSSAY nx MAN. IV:.

Pope, as the member of a persecuted sect, had learnt
to share that righteous liatred of bigotry which is the hon-
ourable characteristic of his best contemporaries. lie con-
sidered the persecuting spirit of his own church to be it-
worst fault. 1 In the early Essay on Criticism he offended
some of his own sect by a vigorous denunciation of tin-
doctrine which promotes persecution by limiting salvation
to a particular creed. His charitable conviction that a
divine element is to be found in all creeds, from that of
the " poor Indian" upwards, animates the highest passages
in his works. But though he sympathizes with a gener-
ous toleration, and the specific dogmas of his creed sat
very loosely on his mind, he did not consider that an open
secession was necessary or even honourable. He called
himself a true Catholic, though rather as respectfully sym-
pathizing with the spirit of Fenelon than as holding to
any dogmatic system. The most dignified letter that lie
ever wrote was in answer to a suggestion from Atterbury
(1717), that he might change his religion upon the death
of his father. Pope replies that his worldly interests
would be promoted by such a step; and, in fact, it can-
not be doubted that Pope might have had a share in the
good things then obtainable by successful writers, if he
had qualified by taking the oaths. But he adds that such
a change would hurt his mother's feelings, and that he

o o '

was more certain of his duty to promote her happine
than of any speculative tenet whatever. He was sure that
he could mean as well in the religion he now professed a>
in any other; and that being so, he thought that a change
even to an equally good religion could not be justified. A
similar statement appears in a letter to Swift, in 1729. " I

:un of the religion of Erasmus, a Catholic. So I live, so
~ *

?pence, p. 364.

1 Si

174 POPE. [CHAP.

>hall I die, and hope one day to meet you, Bishop Atter-
hurv. the younger Craggs, Dr. Garth, Dean Berkeley, and
Mr. Hutchison in that place to which God of his infinite
mercy bring us and everybody." To these Protestants he
would doubtless have joined the freethinking Bolingbroke.
At a later period he told Warburton, in less elevated lan-
guage, that the change of his creed would bring him many
riiemies and do no good to any one.

Pope could feel nobly and act honourably when his
morbid vanity did not expose him to some temptation;
and I think that in this matter his attitude was in every
\vay creditable. He showed, indeed, the prejudice enter-
tained bv many of the rationalist divines for the free-

/ V

thinkers who were a little more outspoken than himself.
The deist whose creed was varnished with Christian
phrases w T as often bitter against the deist who rejected
the varnish; and Pope put Toland and Tindal into the
Dunciad as scandalous assailants of all religion. From
his point of view it was as wicked to attack any creed as
to regard any creed as exclusively true ; and certainly
Pope was not disposed to join any party which was hated
and maligned by the mass of the respectable world. For
it must be remembered that, in spite of much that has
been said to the contrary, and in spite of the true ten-
dency of much so-called orthodoxy, the profession of open
dissent from Christian doctrine was then regarded with
extreme disapproval. It might be a fashion, as Butler
and others declare, to talk infidelity in cultivated circles ;
but a public promulgation of unbelief was condemned
as criminal, and worthy only of the Grub-street faction.
l'pe, therefore, was terribly shocked when he found him-
self accused of heterodoxy. His poem was at once trans-
lated, and, we are told, spread rapidly in France, where

vii.] THE ESSAY ON MAX. 175

Voltaire and many inferior writers were introducing the
contagion of English freethinking. A solid Swiss pastor
and professor of philosophy, Jean Pierre Crousaz (1663-
1750), undertook the task of refutation, and published
an examination of Pope's philosophy in 1737 and 1738.
A serious examination of this bundle of half -digested
opinions was in itself absurd. Some years afterwards
(1751) Pope came under a more powerful critic. The
Berlin Academy of Sciences offered a prize for a similar
essay, and Lessing published a short tract called Pope ein
Metaphysiker ! If any one cares to see a demonstration
that Pope did not understand the system of Leibnitz, and
that the bubble blown by a great philosopher has more
apparent cohesion than that of a half-read poet, he may
find a sufficient statement of the case in Lessing. But
Lessing sensibly protests from the start against the intru-
sion of such a work into serious discussion; and that is
the only ground which is worth taking in the matter.

The most remarkable result of the Essay on Man, it
may be parenthetically noticed, was its effect upon Voltaire.
In 1751 Voltaire wrote a poem on Natural Law, which
is a comparatively feeble application of Pope's principles.
It is addressed to Frederick instead of Bolingbroke, and
contains a warm eulogy of Pope's philosophy. But a
few years later the earthquake at Lisbon suggested cer-
tain doubts to Voltaire as to the completeness of the op-
timist theory; and, in some of the most impressive verses
of the century, he issued an energetic protest against the

* ' * o 1

platitudes applied by Pope and his followers to deaden our
sense of the miseries under which the race suffers. Ver-
bally, indeed, Voltaire still makes his bow to the optimist
theory, and the two poems appeared together in 1756 ; but

his noble outcry against the empty and complacent deduc-

176 POPE. [CHAP.

tions which it covers, led to his famous controversy with
Rousseau. The history of this conflict falls beyond my
subject, and I must be content with this brief reference,
which proves, amongst other things, the interest created
by Tope's advocacy of the most characteristic doctrines of
his time on the minds of the greatest leaders of the revo-
lutionary movement.


Meanwhile, however, Crousaz was translated into Eng-
lish, and Pope was terribly alarmed. His "guide, philos-
opher, and friend " had returned to the Continent (in
1735), disgusted with his political failure, but was again
in England from June, 1738, to May, 1739. We know
not what comfort he may have given to his unlucky dis-
ciple, but an unexpected champion suddenly arose. Wil-
liam Warburton (born 1698) was gradually pushing his
way to success. He had been an attorney's clerk, and had
not received a university education ; but his multifarious
reading was making him conspicuous, helped by great en-
ergy, and by a quality which gave some plausibility to the
title bestowed on him by Mallet, " The most impudent
man living." In his humble days he had been intimate
with Pope's enemies, Concanen and Theobald, and had
spoken scornfully of Pope, saying, amongst other things,
that he " borrowed for want of genius," as Addison bor-
rowed from modesty, and Milton from pride. In 1736 he
had published his first important work, the Alliance be-
tween Church and State ; and in 1738 followed the first in-
stalment of his principal performance, the Divine Legation.
During the following years he was the most conspicuous
theologian of the day, dreaded and hated by his opponents,
whom he unsparingly bullied, and dominating a small
clique of abject admirers. lie is said to have condemned
the Essay on Man when it first appeared. He called it a

vii.] THE ESSAY OX MAN. 177

collection of the worst passages of the worst authors, ami
declared that it taught rank atheism. The appearance of
Crousaz's book suddenly induced him to make a complete
change of front. He declared that Pope spoke " truth uni-
formly throughout," and complimented him on his strong
and delicate reasoning.


It is idle to seek motives for this proceeding. Warbur-
ton loved paradoxes, and delighted in brandishing them in
the most offensive terms. He enjoyed the exercise of his
own ingenuity, and therefore his ponderous writings,
though amusing by their audacity and width of reading,
are absolutely valueless for their ostensible purpose. The
exposition of Pope (the first part of which appeared in
December, 1*738) is one of his most tiresome performances ;
nor need any human being at the present day study the
painful wire-drawings and sophistries by which he tries to
give logical cohesion and orthodox intention to the Essay
on Man.

If Warburton was simply practising his dialectical skill,
the result was a failure. But if he had an eye to certain
lower ends, his success surpassed his expectations. Pope
was in ecstasies. He fell upon Warburton's neck or
rather at his feet and overwhelmed him with professions
of gratitude. lie invited him to Twickenham ; met him
with compliments which astonished a by-stander, and
wrote to him in terms of surprising humility. "You un-
derstand me," he exclaims in his first letter, " as well as I
do myself ; but you express me much better than I could
express myself." For the rest of his life Pope adopted
the same tone. He sheltered himself behind this burly
defender, and could never praise him enough. He declared
Mr. Warburton to be the greatest general critic he ever
knew, and was glad to instal him in the position of chain-

178 POPE. [CHAP.

j)in in ordinarv. Warburton was consulted about new
rditims ; annotated Pope's poems; stood sponsor to the
I;i4 Dnnciad, and was assured by his admiring friend that
the comment would prolong the life of the poetry. Pope
left all his copyrights to this friend, whilst his MSS. were
o-iven to Bolingbroke.

When the University of Oxford proposed to confer an
honorary degree upon Pope, he declined to receive the
compliment, because the proposal to confer a smaller hon-
our upon Warburton had been at the same time thrown
out by the University. In fact, Pope looked up to War-
burton with a reverence almost equal to that which he felt
for Bolino-broke. If such admiration for such an idol was


rather humiliating, we must remember that Pope was un-
able to detect the charlatan in the pretentious but really
vigorous writer; and we may perhaps admit that there is
something pathetic in Pope's constant eagerness to be sup-
ported by some sturdier arm. We find the same tendency
throughout his life. The weak and morbidly sensitive

C5 *

nature may be forgiven if its dependence leads to excessive

Warburton derived advantages from the connexion, the
prospect of which, we may hope, was not the motive of
his first advocacy. To be recognized by the most eminent
man of letters of the day was to receive a kind of certifi-
cate of excellence, valuable to a man who had not the reg-
ular university hall-mark. More definite results followed.
Pope introduced Warburton to Allen, and to Murray, after-
wards Lord Mansfield. Through Murray he was appointed
preacher at Lincoln's Inn, and from Allen he derived great-
er benefits the hand of his niece and heiress, and an in-
troduction to Pitt, which gained for him the bishopric of
( :"uccster.

ni.] THE ESSAY OX MAX. 17'..

Pope's allegiance to Bolingbroke was not weakened by
this new alliance. He sought to bring the two together,
when Boliogbroke again visited England in 1743. The


only result was an angry explosion, as, indeed, might have
been foreseen ; for Bolingbroke was not likely to be well-
disposed to the clever parson whose dexterous sleight-of-
hand had transferred Pope to the orthodox camp ; nor was
it natural that Warburton, the most combative and insult-
ins: of controversialists, should talk on friendlv terms to

C3 /

one of his natural antagonists an antagonist, moreover,

Cj Cj /

who was not likely to have bishoprics in his gift, The
quarrel, as we shall see, broke out fiercely over Pope's




POPE had tried a considerable number of poetical exper-
iments when the Dunciad appeared, but he had not yet
discovered in what direction his talents could be most ef-
ficiently exerted. By-standers are sometimes acuter in de-
tecting a man's true forte than the performer himself. In
1V22 Atterbury had seen Pope's lines upon Addison, and
reported that no piece of his writing was ever so much
sought after. " Since you now know," he added, " in
what direction your strength lies, I hope you will not suf-
fer that talent to be unemployed." Atterbury seems to
have been rather fond of giving advice to Pope, and puts
on a decidedly pedagogic air when writing to him. The
present suggestion was more likely to fall on willing ears
than another made shortly before their final separation.
Atterbury then presented Pope with a Bible, and recom-
mended him to study its pages. If Pope had taken to
heart some of St. Paul's exhortations to Christian charity ^
he would scarcely have published his lines upon Addison,
and Kii'_rlish literature would have lost some of its most
brilliant pages.

Satire of the kind represented by those lines was so ob-
viously adapted to Pope's peculiar talent, that we rather
wonder at his having taken to it seriously at a compara-


lively late period, and even then having drifted into it
by accident rather than by deliberate adoption. Ho had
aimed, as has been said, at being a philosophic and didactic
poet. The Essay on Man formed part of a much larger
plan, of which two or three fragmentary sketches are given
by Spcncc. 1 Bolingbroke and Pope wrote to Swift in No-
vember, 1729, about a scheme then in course of execution.
Bolingbroke declares that Pope is now exerting what was
eminently and peculiarly his talents above all writers, living
or dead, without excepting Horace ; whilst Pope explained
that this was a " system of ethics in the Horatian way."
The language seems to apply best to the poems afterwards
called the Ethic Epistles, though at this time Pope, per-
haps, had not a very clear plan in his head, and was work-
ing at different parts simultaneously. The Essay on Man,
his most distinct scheme, was to form the opening book of
his poem. Three others were to treat of knowledge and
its limits, of government ecclesiastical and civil and of
morality. The last book itself involved an elaborate plan.
There were to be three epistles about each cardinal virtue
one, for example, upon avarice ; another on the contrary
extreme of prodigality ; and a third upon the judicious
mean of a moderate use of riches. Pope told Spence that
he had dropped the plan chiefly because his third book
would have provoked every Church on the face of the
earth, and he did not care for always being in boiling wa-
ter. The scheme, however, was far too wide and too sys-
tematic for Pope's powers. His spasmodic energy enabled
him only to fill up corners of the canvas, and from what
he did, it is sufficiently evident that his classification would
have been incoherent and his philosophy unequal to the
task. Part of his work was used for the fourth book of

1 Spence, pp. 16,48, 137,315.

182 POPE. [CHAP.

the Dunciad, and the remainder corresponds to what are
now called the Ethic Epistles. These, as they now stand,
in< Imlr five poems. One of these has no real connexion
with the others. It is a poem addressed to Addison, " oc-
r;i>ioned by his dialogue on medals," written (according to
Pope) in 1715, and first published in Tickcll's edition of
Addison's works in 1721. The epistle to Burlington on
taste was afterwards called the Use of Riches, and append-
ed to another with the same title, thus filling a place in
the ethical scheme, though devoted to a very subsidiary
branch of the subject. It appeared in 1731. The epistle
" of the use of riches " appeared in 1732 ; that of the knowl-
edge and characters of men in 1733 ; and that of the char-


acters of women in 1735. The last three are all that would
seem to belong to the wider treatise contemplated ; but
Pope composed so much in fragments that it is difficult to
say what bits he might have originally intended for any
given purpose.

Another distraction seems to have done more than his
fear of boiling water to arrest the progress of the elaborate
plan. Bolingbroke coming one day into his room, took

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 28 of 44)