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up a Horace, and observed that the first satire of the sec-
ond book Avould suit Pope's style. Pope translated it in a
morning or two, and sent it to press almost immediately
(1733). The poem had a brilliant success. It contained,
amono-st other things, the couplet which provoked his war
with Lady Mary and Lord Hervey. This, again, led to his
putting together the epistle to Arbuthnot, which includes
the bitter attack upon Hervey, as part of a general apologia
pro vita sua. It was afterwards called the Prologue to the
Satires. Of his other imitations of Horace, one appeared
in 17'U (the second satire of the second book), and four
more (the first and sixth epistles of the first book and the


first and second of the second book) in 1738. Finally, in
1737, he published two dialogues, first called " 1738," and
afterwards The Epilogue to the Satires, which are in the
same vein as the epistle to Arbuthnot. These epistles and
imitations of Horace, with the so-called prologue and epi-
logue, took up the greatest part of Pope's energy during
the years in which his intellect was at its best, and show


his finest technical qualities. The Essay on Man was on
hand during the earl/ part of this period, the epistles and
satires representing a ramification from the same inquiry.
But the essay shows the weak side of Pope, whilst his
most remarkable qualities are best represented by these
subsidiary writings. The reason will be sufficiently appar-
ent after a brief examination, which will also give occasion
for saying what still remains to be said in regard to Pope
as a literary artist.


The weakness already conspicuous in the Essay on Man
mars the effect of the Ethic Epistles. His work tends to
be rather an ao-oreo-ation than an organic whole. He was

O O -j

(if I may borrow a phrase from the philologists) an ag-
glutinative writer, and composed by sticking together inde-
pendent fragments. His mode of composition was natural
to a mind incapable of sustained and continuous thought.
In the epistles he professes to be working on a plan. The
first expounds his favourite theory (also treated in the es-
say) of a " ruling passion." Each man has such a passion,
if only you can find it, which explains the apparent incon-
sistency of his conduct. This theory, which has exposed
him to a charge of fatalism (especially from people who
did not very well know what fatalism means), is sufficient-
ly striking for his purpose ; but it rather turns up at in-
tervals than really binds the epistle into a whole. But
the arrangement of his portrait gallery is really unsys-
K 9

184 POPE. [CHAP.

tematic ; the affectation of system is rather in the way.
The most striking characters in the essay on women were

o >

inserted (whenever composed) some time after its first ap-
pearance, and the construction is too loose to make any
interruption of the argument perceptible. The poems
contain some of Pope's most brilliant bits, but we can
scarcely remember them as a whole. The characters of
AVharton and Yilliers, of Atossa, of the Man of Ross, and
Sir Balaam, stand out as brilliant JDassages which would
do almost as well in any other setting. In the imitations
of Horace he is, of course, guided by lines already laid
down for him ; and he has shown admirable skill in
translating the substance as well as the words of his au-
thor by the nearest equivalents. This peculiar mode of
imitation had been tried by other writers, but in Pope's
hands it succeeded beyond all precedent. There is so
much congeniality between Horace and Pope, and the
social orders of which they were the spokesmen, that he
can represent his original without giving us any sense of
constraint. Yet even here he sometimes obscures the
thread of connexion, and we feel more or less clearly
that the order of thought is not that which would have


spontaneously arisen in his own mind. So, for example,
in the imitation of Horace's first epistle of the first book,
the references to the Stoical and Epicurean morals imply
a connexion of ideas to which nothing corresponds in
Pope's reproduction. Horace is describing a genuine ex-
perience, while Pope is only putting together a string of
commonplaces. The most interesting part of these im-
itations are those in which Pope takes advantage of the
suggestions in Horace to be thoroughly autobiographical.
lie manages to run his own experience and feelings into
the moulds provided for him by his predecessor. One


of the happiest passages is that in which lie turns the
serious panegyric on Augustus into a bitter irony against
the other Augustus, whose name was George, and who,
according to Lord Ilervey, was so contrasted with his
prototype, that whereas personal courage was the one
weak point of the emperor, it was the one strong point
of the English king. As soon as Pope has a chance of
expressing his personal antipathies or (to do him bare
justice) his personal attachments, his lines begin to glow.
When he is trying to preach, to be ethical and philosoph-
ical, he is apt to fall into mouthing, and to lose his place ;
but when he can forget his stilts, or point his morality by
some concrete and personal instance, every word is alive.
And it is this which makes the epilogues, and more es-
pecially the prologue to the satires, his most impressive
performances. The unity, which is very ill supplied by
some ostensible philosophical thesis, or even by the lead-
ing-strings of Horace, is given by his own intense interest
in himself. The best way of learning to enjoy Pope is to
get by heart the epistle to Arbuthnot. That epistle is, as
I have said, his Apologia. In its some 400 lines he has
managed to compress more of his feelings and thoughts
than would fill an ordinary autobiography. It is true
that the epistle requires a commentator. It wants some
familiarity with the events of Pope's life, and many lines
convey only a part of their meaning unless we are famil-
iar not only with the events, but with the characters of
the persons mentioned. Passages over which we pass
carelessly at the first reading then come out with won-
derful freshness, and single phrases throw a sudden light
upon hidden depths of feeling. It is also true, unluckily,
that parts of it must be read by the rule of contraries.
They tell us not what Pope really was, but what he

186 POPE. [CHAP.

wished others to think him, and what he probably en<
<lrav uired to persuade himself that he was. How far he
succeeded in imposing upon himself is indeed a very curi-
ous question which can never be fully answered. There
is the strangest mixture of honesty and hypocrisy. Let
me, he says, live my own, and die so too

" (To live and die is all I have to do)
Maintain a poet's dignity and ease,
And see what friends and read what books I please!"

Well, he was independent in his fashion, and we can at
least believe that he so far believed in himself. But
when he goes on to say that he " can sleep without a
poem in his head,

'Nor know if Dennis be alive or dead, 1 "

we remember his calling up the maid four times a night
in the dreadful winter of 1740 to save a thought, and the
features writhing in anguish as lie read a hostile pam-
phlet. Presently he informs us that "he thinks a lie in
prose or verse the same " only too much the same ! and
that "if he pleased, he pleased by manly ways." Alas!
for the manliness. And yet again, when he speaks of his


" Unspotted names and venerable long,
If there be force in virtue or in song,"

can we doubt that he is speaking from the heart? We
should perhaps like to forget that the really exquisite and
touching lines in which he speaks of his mother had been
so carefullv elaborated.


" Me let the tender office long engage
To rock the cradle of declining age,
With lenient acts extend a mother's breath,
Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death,


Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep awhile one parent from the sky !"

If there arc more tender and exquisitely expressed
lines in the language, I know not where to find them ; and
yet again I should be glad not to be reminded by a cruel
commentator that poor Mrs. Pope had been dead for two
\ cars when they were published, and that even this touch-
ing effusion has, therefore, a taint of dramatic affectation.

To me, I confess, it seems most probable, though at first
sight incredible, that these utterances were thoroughly sin-
cere for the moment. I fancy that under Pope's elabo-
rate masks of hypocrisy and mystification there was a heart
always abnormally sensitive. Unfortunately it was as ca-
pable of bitter resentment as of warm affection, and
was always liable to be misled by the suggestions of his
strano-elv irritable vanitv. And this seems to me to give

^3 *' *"

the true key to Pope's poetical as well as to his personal

To explain either, we must remember that he was a man
of impulses ; at one instant a mere incarnate thrill of grat-
itude or o-enerosity, and in the next of spite or jealousy.
A spasm of wounded vanity would make him for the time
as mean and selfish as other men are made by a frenzy of
bodily fear. He would instinctively snatch at a lie even
when a moment's reflection would have shown that the
plain truth would be more convenient, and therefore he
had to accumulate lie upon lie, each intended to patch up
some previous blunder. Though nominally the poet of
reason, he was the very antithesis of the man who is
reasonable in the highest sense : who is truthful in word


and deed because his conduct is regulated by harmonious
and invariable principles. Pope was governed by the in-
stantaneous feeling. His emotion came in sudden jets


ami <Mishes, instead of a continuous stream. The same

O 7

peculiaritv deprives his poetry of continuous harmony or
profound unity of conception. II is lively sense of form
and proportion enables him, indeed, to till up a simple
framework (generally of borrowed design) with an eye to
general effect, as in the Rape of the Lock or the first Dun-
dad. But even there his flight is short ; and when a

o '

poem should be governed by the evolution of some pro-
found principle or complex mood of sentiment, he be-
comes incoherent and perplexed. But, on the other hand,
he can perceive admirably all that can be seen at a glance
from a single point of view. Though he could not be
continuous, he could return a^ain and ao-ain to the same

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point; he could polish, correct, eliminate superfluities, and
compress his meaning more and more closely, till he has
constructed short passages of imperishable excellence.
This microscopic attention to fragments sometimes injures
the connexion, and often involves a mutilation of construc-
tion. He corrects and prunes too closely. He could, he
says, in reference to the Essay on Man, put things more
briefly in verse than in prose ; one reason being that he
could take liberties of this kind not permitted in prose
writing. But the injury is compensated by the singular
terseness and vivacity of his best style. Scarcely any one,
as is often remarked, has left so large a proportion of
quotable phrases, 1 and, indeed, to the present he survives
chieflv by the current coinage of that kind which bears

/ / Cj

his image and superscription.

This familiar remark may help us to solve the old prob-

1 To take an obviously uncertain test, I find that in Bartlctt's dic-
tionary of familiar quotations, Shakspeare fills 70 pages; Milton,
23 ; Pope, 18 ; Wordsworth, 16 ; and Byron, 15. The rest are no-


lem, whether Pope was, or rather in what sense he was,
a poet. Much of his work may be fairly described as
rhymed prose, differing from prose not in substance or
tone of feeling, but only in the form of expression. Ev-
ery poet has an invisible audience, as an orator has a visi-
ble one, who deserve a great part of the merit of his
works. Some men mav write for the religious or philo-

* ~ 1

sophic recluse, and therefore utter the emotions which
come to ordinary mortals in the rare moments when the


music of the spheres, generally drowned by the din of the
commonplace world, becomes audible to their dull senses.
Pope, on the other hand, writes for the wits who never
listen to such strains, and moreover writes for their ordina-
ry moods. He aims at giving us the refined and doubly
distilled essence of the conversation of the statesmen and
courtiers of his time. The standard of good writing al-
ways implicitly present to his mind is the fitness of his
poetry to pass muster when shown by Gay to his duchess,
or read after dinner to a party composed of Swift, Boling-
broke, and Congreve. That imaginary audience is always
looking over his shoulder, applauding a good hit, chuck-
lino; over allusions to the last bit of scandal, and ridiculing

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any extravagance tending to romance or sentimental ism.

The limitations imposed by such a condition are obvi-
ous. As men of taste, Pope's friends would make their
bow to the recognized authorities. They would praise
Paradise Lost, but a new Milton would be as much out
of place with them as the real Milton at the court of
Charles II. They would really prefer to have his verses
tagged by Dry den, or the Samson polished by Pope.
They would have ridiculed AVords worth's mysticism or
Shelley's idealism, as they laughed at the religious " en-
thusiasm'' 1 of Law or Wesley, or the metaphysical subtle-

190 POPE. [CHAP.

ties of Berkeley and Hume. They preferred the philoso-
phy of the Essay on Man, which might be appropriated
by a common-sense preacher, or the rhetoric of Eloisa and
A/ttl<"n'd, bits of which might be used to excellent effect
(as, indeed, Pope himself used the peroration) by a fine
gentleman addressing his gallantry to a contemporary Sap-
pho. It is only too easy to expose their shallowness, and
therefore to overlook what was genuine in their feelings.
After all, Pope's eminent friends were no mere tailor's
blocks for the display of laced coats. Swift and Boling-
broke were not enthusiasts nor philosophers, but certain-
ly they were no fools. They liked, in the first place,
thorough polish. They could appreciate a perfectly turn-
ed phrase, an epigram which concentrated into a couplet
a volume of quick observations, a smart saying from
Rochefoucauld or La Bruyere, which gave an edge to
worldly wisdom ; a really brilliant utterance of one of

J /

those maxims, half true and not over profound, but still
presenting one aspect of life as they saw it, which have
since grown rather threadbare. This sort of moralizing,
which is the staple of Pope's epistles upon the ruling pas-
sion or upon avarice, strikes us now as unpleasantly ob-
vious. \\'e have got beyond it, and want some more re-
fined analysis and more complex psychology. Take, for
example, Pope's epistle to Bathurst, which was in hand
for two years, and is just 400 lines in length. The sim-
plicity of the remarks is almost comic. Nobody want;
to be told now that bribery is facilitated by modern svs

V / V

tern of credit.

" Blest paper-credit ! last and best supply
That lends corruption lighter wings to fly !"

This triteness blinds us to the singular felicity with

o /


which the observations have been verified, a felicity which
makes many of the phrases still proverbial. The mark is
so plain that we do scant justice to the accuracy and pre-
cision with which it is hit. Yet when we notice how ev-
ery epithet tells, and how perfectly the writer does what
he tries to do, we may understand why Pope extorted
contemporary admiration. We may, for example, read
once more the familiar passage about Buckingham. The
picture, such as it is, could not be drawn more strikingly
with fewer lines.

" In the worst inn's worst room, with mat half-hung,
The floors of plaister and the walls of dung,
On once ;* flock-bed, but repaired with straw,
With tape-ty'd curtains never meant to draw,
The George and Garter dangling from that bed,
Where tawdry yellow strove with dirty red,
Great Villiers lies ! alas, how changed from him,
That life of pleasure and that soul of whim !
Gallant and gay in Cliveden's proud alcove,
The bower of wanton Shrewsbury and love ;
As great as gay, at council in a ring
Of mimick'd statesmen, and their merry king.
Xo wit to flatter left of all his store !
No fool to laugh at, which he valued more.
Thus, victor of his health, of fortune, friends,
And fame, the lord of useless thousands ends."

It is as graphic as a page of Dickens, and has the ad-
vantage of being less grotesque, if the sentiment is equally
obvious. When Pope has made his hit, he does not blur
the effect by trying to repeat it.

In these epistles, it must be owned that the sentiment
is not only obvious but prosaic. The moral maxims are
delivered like advice offered by one sensible man to an-


other, not with the impassioned fervour of a prophet.
9* 26

192 POPE. [CHAP.

can Pope often rise to that level at which alone satire
is transmuted into the higher class of poetry. To accom-
plish that feat, if, indeed, it be possible, the poet must not
Minply ridicule the fantastic tricks of poor mortals, but
show how they appear to the angels who weep over them.
The petty figures must be projected against a background
of the infinite, and we must feel the relations of our tiny
eddies of life to the oceanic currents of human history.
Pope can never rise above the crowd. He is looking at
his equals, not contemplating them from the height which
reveals their insignificance. The element, which may fair-
ly be called poetical, is derived from an inferior source ;
but sometimes has passion enough in it to lift him above
mere prose.

In one of his most animated passages, Pope relates his
desire to

"Brand the bold front of shameless guilty men,
Dash the proud gamester in his gilded car,
Bare the mean heart that lurks beneath a star."

For the moment he takes himself seriously ; and, indeed,
he seems to have persuaded both himself and his friends
that he was really a great defender of virtue. Arbuthnot
begged him, almost with his dying breath, to continue his
" noble disdain and abhorrence of vice," and, with a due
regard to his own safety, to try rather to reform than
chastise ; and Pope accepts the office ostentatiously. His
provocation is " the strong antipathy of good to bad," and
he exclaims,

" Yes ! I am proud I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me.
Safe from the bar, the pulpit, and the throne,
V- 1 touch'd and shamed by ridicule alone."

If the sentiment provokes a slight incredulity, it is yet


worth while to understand its real meaning; and the ex-
planation is not very far to seek.

1'opr's best writing, T have said, is the essence of con-
versation. It has the quick movement, the boldness and
brilliance, which we suppose to be the attributes of the
best talk. Of course the apparent facility is due to con-
scientious labour. In the Prologue and Epilogue and the
best parts of the imitations of Horace, he shows such con-
summate mastery of his peculiar style, that we forget the
monotonous metre. The opening passage, for example, of
the Prologue is written apparently with the perfect free-
dom of real dialogue ; in fact, it is of course far more
pointed and compressed than any dialogue could ever be.
The dramatic vivacity with which the whole scene is given
shows that he could use metre as the most skilful perform-
er could command a musical instrument. Pope, indeed,
shows, in the Essay on Criticism, that his views about the
uniformity of sound and sense were crude enough ; they
are analogous to the tricks by which a musician might de-
cently imitate the cries of animals or the murmurs of a
crowd ; and his art excludes any attempt at rivalling the
melody of the great poets who aim at producing a har-
mony quite independent of the direct meaning of their
words. I am only speaking of the felicity with which he
can move in metre, without the slightest appearance of re-
straint, so as to give a kind of idealized representation of
the tone of animated verbal intercourse. Whatever comes
within this province he can produce with admirable fidelity.
Now, in such talks as we imao-ine with Swift and Bolin^-

o o

broke, we may be quite sure that there would be some
very forcible denunciation of corruption corruption be-
ing of course regarded as due to the diabolical agency of
Walpole. During his later years, Pope became a friend

1 -.1-1 POPE. [CHAP.

of all the Opposition clique, which was undermining the
power of the great minister. In his last letters to Swift,
Pope speaks of the new circle of promising patriots who
\\ere rising round him, and from whom he entertained
hopes of the regeneration of this corrupt country. Senti-
ments of this kind were the staple talk of the circles in
which he moved ; and all the young men of promise be-
lieved, or persuaded themselves to fancy, that a political
millennium would follow the downfall of Walpole. Pope,
susceptible as always to the influences of his social sur-
roundings, took in all this, and delighted in figuring him-
self as the prophet of the new era and the denouncer of
wickedness in high places. He sees " old England's gen-
ius" dragged in the dust, hears the black trumpet of vice
proclaiming that " not to be corrupted is the shame," and
declares that he will draw the last pen for freedom, and
use his " sacred weapon " in truth's defence.

To imagine Pope at his best, we must place ourselves in
Twickenham on some fine day, when the lonf disease has

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relaxed its grasp for a moment ; when he has taken a turn
through his garden, and comforted his poor frame with
potted lampreys and a glass or two from his frugal pint.
Suppose two or three friends to be sitting with him, the
stately Bolingbroke or the mercurial Bathurst, with one of
the patriotic hopes of mankind, Marchmont or Lyttelton,
to stimulate his ardour, and the amiable Spence, or Mrs.
1'atty Bloimt to listen reverentially to his morality. Let
the conversation kindle into vivacity, and host and guests
fall into a friendly rivalry, whetting 1 each other's wits by

J ^ ' O /

lively repartee, and airing the Uttle fragments of worldly
wisdom which pass muster for profound observation at
< 'oiirt ; for a time they talk platitudes, though striking out
now and then brilliant flashes, as from the collision of pol-


islied rapiers ; they diverge, perhaps, into literature, and
Pope shines in discussing the secrets of the art to which
liis whole life has been devoted with untiring fidelity.
Suddenly the mention of some noted name provokes a
startling outburst of personal invective from I 'ope; his
friends judiciously divert the current of wrath into a new
channel, and he becomes for the moment a generous
patriot declaiming against the growth of luxury ; the men-
tion of some sympathizing friend brings out a compliment,
so exquisitely turned, as to be a permanent title of honour,
conferred by genius instead of power; or the thought of
his parents makes his voice i emble, and his eyes shine
with pathetic softness ; and you forgive the occasional af-
fectation which you can never quite forget, or even the
occasional grossness or harshness of sentiment which con-
trasts so strongly with the superficial polish. A genuine
report of even the best conversation would be intolerably
prosy and unimaginative. But imagine the very pith and
essence of such talk brought to a focus, concentrated into
the smallest possible space with the infinite dexterity of a
thoroughly trained hand, and you have the kind of writino-

w / O

in which Pope is unrivalled; polished prose with occa-
sional gleams of genuine poetry- -the Epistle to Arbuth-
not and the Epilogue to the Satires.

One point remains to be briefly noticed. The virtue on
which Pope prided himself was correctness ; and I have
interpreted this to mean the quality which is gained by in-
cessant labour, guided by quick feeling, and always under
the strict supervision of common-sense. The next literary
revolution led to a Appreciation of this quality. Warton
(like Macaulay long afterwards) argued that in a higher
sense, the Elizabethan poets were really as correct as Pope.
Their poetry embodied a higher and more complex law,

196 POPE. [CHAP.

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 29 of 44)