CHAPTER XXIV. POPE, AND THE ARTIFICIAL SCHOOL.
Contemporary History. Birth and Early Life. Essay on Criticism. Rape of
the Lock. The Messiah. The Iliad. Value of the Translation. The
Odyssey. Essay on Man. The Artificial School. Estimate of Pope. Other
Alexander Pope is at once one of the greatest names in English literature and one of the most remarkable illustrations of the fact that the literature is the interpreter of English history. He was also a man of singular individuality, and may, in some respects, be considered a lusus naturae among the literary men of his day.
CONTEMPORARY HISTORY.—He was born in London on the 21st of May, 1688, the year which witnessed the second and final expulsion of the Stuarts, in direct line, and the accession of a younger branch in the persons of Mary and her husband, William of Orange. Pope comes upon the literary scene with the new order of political affairs. A dynasty had been overthrown, and the power of the parliament had been established; new charters of right had secured the people from kingly oppression; but there was still a strong element of opposition and sedition in the Jacobite party, which had by no means abandoned the hope of restoring the former rule. They were kept in check, indeed, during the reign of William and Mary, but they became bolder upon the accession of Queen Anne. They hoped to find their efforts facilitated by the fact that she was childless; and they even asserted that upon her death-bed she had favored the succession of the pretender, whom they called James III.
In 1715, the year after the accession of George I., the electoral prince of Hanover,—whose grandmother was the daughter of James I.,—they broke out into open rebellion. The pretender landed in Scotland, and made an abortive attempt to recover the throne. The nation was kept in a state of excitement and turmoil until the disaster of Culloden, and the final defeat of Charles Edward, the young pretender, in 1745, one year after the death of Pope.
These historical facts had a direct influence upon English society: the country was divided into factions; and political conflicts sharpened the wits and gave vigor to the conduct of men in all ranks. Pope was an interpreter of his age, in politics, in general culture, and in social manners and morals. Thus he was a politician among the statesmen Bolingbroke, Buckingham, Oxford, Sunderland, Halifax, Harley, and Marlborough. His Essay on Criticism presents to us the artificial taste and technical rules which were established as a standard in literature. His Essay on Man, his Moral Epistles, and his Universal Prayerare an index to the semi-Christian, semi-Grecian ethics of an age too selfish to be orthodox, and too progressive to be intolerant. His Rape of the Lock is a striking picture of social life, sketched by the hand of a gentle satire. His translations of Homer, and their great success, are significant of a more extended taste for scholarship; not attended, however, with many incentives to originality of production. The nobles were still the patrons of literature, and they fancied old things which were grand, in new and gaudy English dresses. The age was also marked by rapid and uniform progress in the English language. The sonorous, but cumbrous English of Milton had been greatly improved by Dryden; and we have seen, also, that the terse and somewhat crude diction of Dryden's earlier works had been polished and rendered more harmonious in his later poems.
This harmony of language seemed to Pope and to his patrons the chief aim of the poet, and to make it still more tuneful and melodious was the purpose of his life.
BIRTH AND EARLY LIFE.—Pope was the son of a respectable linen-draper, who had achieved a competency and retired to enjoy it. The mother of the poet must have been a good one, to have retained the ardent and eulogistic affection of her son to the close of her life, as she did. This attachment is a marked feature in his biography, and at last finds vent in her epitaph, in which he calls her “mater optima, mulierum amantissima.”
Pope was a sickly, dwarfed, precocious child. His early studies in Latin and Greek were conducted by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, to which his parents belonged; but he soon took his education into his own hands. Alone and unaided he pursued his classical studies, and made good progress in French and German.
Of his early rhyming powers he says:
“I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.”
At the age of twelve, he was taken to Will's Coffee-house, to see the great Dryden, upon whom, as a model, he had already determined to fashion himself.
His first efforts were translations. He made English versions of the first book of the Thebais of Statius; several of the stories of Chaucer, and one of Ovid's Epistles, all of which were produced before he was fifteen.
ESSAY ON CRITICISM.—He was not quite twenty-one when he wrote his Essay on Criticism, in which he lays down the canons of just criticism, and the causes which prevent it. In illustration, he attacks the multitude of critics of that day, and is particularly harsh in his handling of a few among them. He gained a name by this excellent poem, but he made many enemies, and among them one John Dennis, whom he had satirized under the name of Appius. Dennis was his life-long foe.
Perhaps there is no better proof of the lasting and deserved popularity of this Essay, than the numerous quotations from it, not only in works on rhetoric and literary criticism, but in our ordinary intercourse with men. Couplets and lines have become household words wherever the English language is spoken. How often do we hear the sciolist condemned in these words:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or touch not the Pierian spring?
Irreverence and rash speculation are satirized thus:
Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead,
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
We may waive a special notice of his Pastorals, which, like those of Dryden, are but clever imitations of Theocritus and anachronisms of the Alexandrian period. Of their merits, we may judge from his own words. “If they have any merit, it is to be attributed to some good old authors, whose works as I had leisure to study, so I hope I have not wanted care to imitate.”
RAPE OF THE LOCK.—The poem which displays most originality of invention is the Rape of the Lock. It is, perhaps, the best and most charming specimen of the mock-heroic to be found in English; and it is specially deserving of attention, because it depicts the social life of the period in one of its principal phases. Miss Arabella Fermor, one of the reigning beauties of London society, while on a pleasure party on the Thames, had a lock of her hair surreptitiously cut off by Lord Petre. Although it was designed as a joke, the belle was very angry; and Pope, who was a friend of both persons, wrote this poem to assuage her wrath and to reconcile them. It has all the system and construction of an epic. The poet describes, with becoming delicacy, the toilet of the lady, at which she is attended by obsequious sylphs.
The party embark upon the river, and the fair lady is described in the splendor of her charms:
This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourished two locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspired to deck,
With shining ringlets, the smooth, ivory neck.
* * * * *
Fair tresses man's imperial race ensnare.
And beauty draws us by a single hair.
Surrounding sylphs protect the beauty; and one to whom the lock has been given in charge, flutters unfortunately too near, and is clipped in two by the scissors that cut the lock. It is a rather extravagant conclusion, even in a mock-heroic poem, that when the strife was greatest to restore the lock, it flew upward:
A sudden star, it shot through liquid air,
And drew behind a radiant trail of hair,
and thus, and always, it
Adds new glory to the shining sphere.
With these simple and meagre materials, Pope has constructed an harmonious poem in which the sylphs, gnomes, and other sprites of the Rosicrucian philosophy find appropriate place and service. It failed in its principal purpose of reconciliation, but it has given us the best mock-heroic poem in the language. As might have been expected, it called forth bitter criticisms from Dennis; and there were not wanting those who saw in it a political significance. Pope's pleasantry was aroused at this, and he published A Key to the Lock, in which he further mystifies these sage readers: Belinda becomes Great Britain; the Baron is the Earl of Oxford; and Thalestris is the Duchess of Marlborough.
THE MESSIAH.—In 1712 there appeared in one of the numbers of The Spectator, his Messiah, a Sacred Eclogue, written with the purpose of harmonizing the prophecy of Isaiah and the singular oracles of the Pollio, or Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Elevated in thought and grand in diction, the Messiah has kept its hold upon public favor ever since, and portions of it are used as hymns in general worship. Among these will be recognized that of which the opening lines are:
Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise;
Exalt thy towering head and lift thine eyes.
In 1713 he published a poem on Windsor Forest, and an Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, in imitation of Dryden. He also furnished the beautiful prologue to Addison's Cato.
TRANSLATION OF THE ILIAD.—He now proposed to himself a task which was to give him more reputation and far greater emolument than anything he had yet accomplished—a translation of the Iliad of Homer. This was a great desideratum, and men of all parties conspired to encourage and reward him. Chapman's Homer, excellent as it was, was not in a popular measure, and was known only to scholars.
In the execution of this project, Pope labored for six years—writing by day and dreaming of his work at night; translating thirty or forty lines before rising in the morning, and jotting down portions even while on a journey. Pope's polished pentameters, when read, are very unlike the full-voiced hexameters of Homer; but the errors in the translation are comparatively few and unimportant, and his own poetry is in his best vein. The poem was published by subscription, and was a great pecuniary success. This was in part due to the blunt importunity of Dean Swift, who said: “The author shall not begin to print until I have a thousand guineas for him.” Parnell, one of the most accomplished Greek scholars of the day, wrote a life of Homer, to be prefixed to the work; and many of the critical notes were written by Broome, who had translated the Iliad into English prose. Pope was not without poetical rivals. Tickell produced a translation of the first book of the Iliad, which was certainly revised, and many thought partly written, by Addison. A coolness already existing between Pope and Addison was increased by this circumstance, which soon led to an open rupture between them. The public, however, favored Pope's version, while a few of the dilettanti joined Addison in preferring Tickell's.
The pecuniary results of Pope's labors were particularly gratifying. The work was published in six quarto volumes, and had more than six hundred subscribers, at six guineas a copy: the amount realized by Pope on the first and subsequent issues was upwards of five thousand pounds—an unprecedented payment of bookseller to author in that day.
VALUE OF THE TRANSLATION.—This work, in spite of the criticism of exact scholars, has retained its popularity to the present time. Chapman's Homer has been already referred to. Since the days of Pope numerous authors have tried their hands upon Homer, translating the whole or a part. Among these is a very fine poem by Cowper, in blank verse, which is praised by the critics, but little read. Lord Derby's translation is distinguished for its prosaic accuracy. The recent version of our venerable poet, Wm. C. Bryant, is acknowledged to be at once scholarly, accurate, and harmonious, and will be of permanent value and reputation. But the exquisite tinkling of Pope's lines, the pleasant refrain they leave in the memory, like the chiming of silver bells, will cause them to last, with undiminished favor, unaffected by more correct rivals, as long as the language itself. “A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope,” said the great Bentley; “but pray do not call it Homer.” Despite this criticism of the Greek scholar, the world has taken it for Homer, and knows Homer almost solely through this charming medium.
The Iliad was issued in successive years, the last two volumes appearing in 1720. Of course it was savagely attacked by Dennis; but Pope had won more than he had hoped for, and might laugh at his enemies.
With the means he had inherited, increased by the sale of his poem, Pope leased a villa on the Thames, at Twickenham, which he fitted up as a residence for life. He laid out the grounds, built a grotto, and made his villa a famous spot.
Here he was smitten by the masculine charms of the gifted Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who figures in many of his verses, and particularly in the closing lines of the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard. It was a singular alliance, destined to a speedy rupture. On her return from Turkey, in 1718, where her husband had been the English ambassador, she took a home near Pope's villa, and, at his request, sat for her portrait. When, later, they became estranged, she laughed at the poet, and his coldness turned into hatred.
THE ODYSSEY.—The success of his version of the Iliad led to his translation of the Odyssey; but this he did with the collaboration of Fenton and Broome, the former writing four and the latter six books. The volumes appeared successively in 1725-6, and there was an appendix containing the Batrachomiomachia, or Battle of the Frogs and Mice, translated by Parnell. For this work Pope received the lion's share of profits, his co-laborers being paid only L800.
Among his miscellaneous works must be mentioned portions of Martinus Scriblerus. One of these, Peri Bathous, or Art of Sinking in Poetry, was the germ of The Dunciad.
Like Dryden, he was attacked by the soi-disant poets of the day, and retorted in similar style and taste. In imitation of Dryden's MacFlecknoe, he wrote The Dunciad, or epic of the Dunces, in the first edition of which Theobald was promoted to the vacant throne. It roused a great storm. Authors besieged the publisher to hinder him from publishing it, while booksellers and agents were doing all in their power to procure it. In a later edition a new book was added, deposing Theobald and elevating Colley Cibber to the throne of Dulness. This was ill-advised, as the ridicule, which was justly applied to Theobald, is not applicable to Cibber.
ESSAY ON MAN.—The intercourse of the poet with the gifted but sceptical Lord Bolingbroke is apparent in his Essay on Man, in which, with much that is orthodox and excellent, the principles and influence of his lordship are readily discerned. The first part appeared in 1732, and the second some years later. The opinion is no longer held that Bolingbroke wrote any part of the poem; he has only infected it. It is one of Pope's best poems in versification and diction, and abounds with pithy proverbial sayings, which the English world has been using ever since as current money in conversational barter. Among many that might be selected, the following are well known:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole
Whose body nature is, and God the soul.
Know thou thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
A wit's a feather, and a chief's a rod;
An honest man's the noblest work of God.
Among the historical teachings of Pope's works and career, and also among the curiosities of literature, must be noticed the publication of Pope's letters, by Curll the bookseller, without the poet's permission. They were principally letters to Henry Cromwell, Wycherley, Congreve, Steele, Addison, and Swift. There were not wanting those who believed that it was a trick of the poet himself to increase his notoriety; but such an opinion is hardly warranted. These letters form a valuable chapter in the social and literary history of the period.
POPE'S DEATH AND CHARACTER.—On the 30th of May, 1744, Pope passed away, after a long illness, during which he said he was “dying of a hundred good symptoms.” Indeed, so frail and weak had he always been, that it was a wonder he lived so long. His weakness of body seems to have acted upon his strong mind, which must account for much that is satirical and splenetic in his writings. Very short, thin, and ill-shaped, his person wanted the compactness necessary to stand alone, until it was encased in stays. He needed a high chair at table, such as children use; but he was an epicure, and a fastidious one; and despite his infirmities, his bright, intellectual eye and his courtly manners caused him to be noted quite as much as his defects.
THE ARTIFICIAL SCHOOL.—Pope has been set forth as the head of the Artificial School. This is, perhaps, rather a convenient than an exact designation. He had little of original genius, but was an apt imitator and reproducer—what in painting would be an excellent copyist. His greatest praise, however, is that he reduced to system what had gone before him; his poems present in themselves an art of poetry, with technical canons and illustrations, which were long after servilely obeyed, and the influence of which is still felt to-day.
And this artificial school was in the main due to the artificial character of the age. Nature seemed to have lost her charms; pastorals were little more than private theatricals, enacted with straw hats and shepherd's crook in drawing-rooms or on close-clipped lawns. Culture was confined to court and town, and poets found little inducement to consult the heart or to woo nature, but wrote what would please the town or court. This taste gave character to the technical standards, to which Pope, more than any other writer, gave system and coherence. Most of the literati were men of the town; many were fine gentlemen with a political bias; and thus it is that the school of poets of which Pope is the unchallenged head, has been known as the Artificial School.
In the passage of time, and with the increase of literature, the real merits of Pope were for some time neglected, or misrepresented. The world is beginning to discern and recognize these again. Learned, industrious, self-reliant, controversial, and, above all, harmonious, instead of giving vent to the highest fancies in simple language, he has treated the common-place—that which is of universal interest—in melodious and splendid diction. But, above all, he stands as the representative of his age: a wit among the comic dramatists who were going out and the essayists who were coming in; a man of the world with Lady Mary and the gay parties on the Thames; a polemic, who dealt keen thrusts and who liked to see them rankle, and who yet writhed in agony when the riposte came; a Roman Catholic in faith and a latitudinarian in speech;—such was Pope as a type of that world in which he lived.
A poet of the first rank he was not; he invented nothing; but he established the canons of poetry, attuned to exquisite harmony the rhymed couplet which Dryden had made so powerful an instrument, improved the language, discerned and reconnected the discordant parts of literature; and thus it is that he towers above all the poets of his age, and has sent his influence through those that followed, even to the present day.
OTHER WRITERS OF THE PERIOD.
Matthew Prior, 1664-1721: in his early youth he was a waiter in his uncle's tap-room, but, surmounting all difficulties, he rose to be a distinguished poet and diplomatist. He was an envoy to France, where he was noted for his wit and ready repartee. His love songs are somewhat immoral, but exquisitely melodious. His chief poems are: Alma, a philosophic piece in the vein of Hudibras; Solomon, a Scripture poem; and, the best of all, The City and Country Mouse, a parody on Dryden's Hind and Panther, which he wrote in conjunction with Mr. Montague. He was imprisoned by the Whigs in 1715, and lost all his fortune. He was distinguished by having Dr. Johnson as his biographer, in the Lives of the Poets.
John Arbuthnot, 1667-1735: born in Scotland. He was learned, witty, and amiable. Eminent in medicine, he was physician to the court of Queen Anne. He is chiefly known in literature as the companion of Pope and Swift, and as the writer with them of papers in the Martinus Scriblerus Club, which was founded in 1714, and of which Pope, Gay, Swift, Arbuthnot, Harvey, Atterbury, and others, were the principal members. Arbuthnot wrote a History of John Bull, which was designed to render the war then carried on by Marlborough unpopular, and certainly conduced to that end.
John Gay, 1688-1732: he was of humble origin, but rose by his talents, and figured at court. He wrote several dramas in a mock-tragic vein. Among these are What D'ye Call It? and Three Hours after Marriage; but that which gave him permanent reputation is his Beggar's Opera, of which the hero is a highwayman, and the characters are prostitutes and Newgate gentry. It is interspersed with gay and lyrical songs, and was rendered particularly effective by the fine acting of Miss Elizabeth Fenton, in the part of Polly. The Shepherd's Week, a pastoral, contains more real delineations of rural life than any other poem of the period. Another curious piece is entitled, Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London.
Thomas Parnell, 1679-1718: he was the author of numerous poems, among which the only one which has retained popular favor is The Hermit, a touching poem founded upon an older story. He wrote the life of Homer prefixed to Pope's translation; but it was very much altered by Pope.
Thomas Tickell, 1686-1740: particularly known as the friend of Addison. He wrote a translation of the First Book of Homer's Iliad, which was corrected by Addison, and contributed several papers to The Spectator. But he is best known by his Elegy upon Addison, which Dr. Johnson calls a very “elegant funeral poem.”
Isaac Watts, 1674-1765: this great writer of hymns was born at Southampton, and became one of the most eminent of the dissenting ministers of England. He is principally known by his metrical versions of the Psalms, and by a great number of original hymns, which have been generally used by all denominations of Christians since. He also produced many hymns for children, which have become familiar as household words. He had a lyrical ear, and an easy, flowing diction, but is sometimes careless in his versification and incorrect in his theology. During the greater part of his life the honored guest of Sir Thomas Abney, he devoted himself to literature. Besides many sermons, he produced a treatise on The First Principles of Geology and Astronomy; a work on Logic, or the Right Use of the Reason in the Inquiry after Truth; and A Supplement on the Improvement of the Mind. These latter have been superseded as text-books by later and more correct inquiry.
Edward Young, 1681-1765: in his younger days he sought preferment at court, but being disappointed in his aspirations, he took orders in the Church, and led a retired life. He published a satire entitled, The Love of Fame, the Universal Passion, which was quite successful. But his chief work, which for a long time was classed with the highest poetic efforts, is the Night Thoughts, a series of meditations, during nine nights, on Life, Death, and Immortality. The style is somewhat pompous, the imagery striking, but frequently unnatural; the occasional descriptions majestic and vivid; and the effect of the whole is grand, gloomy, and peculiar. It is full of apothegms, which have been much quoted; and some of his lines and phrases are very familiar to all.
He wrote papers on many topics, and among his tragedies the best known is that entitled The Revenge. Very popular in his own day, Young has been steadily declining in public favor, partly on account of the superior claims of modern writers, and partly because of the morbid and gloomy views he has taken of human nature. His solemn admonitions throng upon the reader like phantoms, and cause him to desire more cheerful company. A sketch of the life of Young may be found in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets.