by Paul Elmer More
After all this, it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, whether Pope was a poet, otherwise than by asking in return, If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found? To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer, though a definition which shall exclude Pope will not easily be made.When Dr. Johnson handed down that famous decision he had no means of foreseeing, and indeed would not have cared to see, the great romantic revival which was to ask a good many times whether Pope was a poet, and was to circumscribe poetry with innumerable definitions. Even so cautious and classical a critic as Matthew Arnold was reduced by his Wordsworthian fervour into saying that, "though they may write in verse, though they may in a certain sense be masters of the art of versification, Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose." Probably the majority of readers of verse to-day, certainly the lagging "official critics," still talk of Pope in an offhand way as a great writer, perhaps, but as at bottom scarcely a poet at all. Yet there are signs that the sounder taste of the present, grown a little weary of the old romantic presumptions, borrowed from Germany, is tending rather to a truer estimate of the neo-classic school. A pleasant witness of this returning sanity may be found in the new life of Pope by Miss Symonds, whose measured judgement shows by its very lack of originality--I mean nothing disparaging by the phrase--the new set of the tide. In the end criticism is likely to settle down on the sentence of Joseph Warton, himself one of the forerunners of romanticism: "In that species of poetry wherein Pope excelled, he is superior to all mankind; and I only say that this species of poetry is not the most excellent one of the art."
No doubt the character of the poet and the indecorous squabbles in which his life was passed have had something to do with the critical obloquy that has occasionally fallen upon him. If you wish to hear the worst of him--and it is pretty bad --you have only to read Professor Lounsbury's learned work, in which the quarrel between Pope and Theobald over the Text of Shakespeare is made the excuse for raking together half the scandalous doings of the little bard. Professor Lounsbury, as an eminent and honest scholar, may show just a touch of partiality for the able editor and poor poet against the slovenly editor and great poet, but, with the best of allowances, his exposition of Pope's treacheries and endless machinations leaves the would-be moralist a sorry figure to contemplate. Well, let us admit that in stooping to Truth, as he boasted, Pope showed rather a magnificent contempt for the prosaic precepts of that goddess. As a claimant on eternity he was ready to treat the periods of passing time most cavalierly, antedating and postdating his satirical thrusts quite as it suited him. His success in getting his correspondence published against his will is perhaps the finest piece of double-dealing recorded in the annals of literature. His ways with women were peevish or bullying as occasion demanded, and his gallantries are with difficulty separated from his slanders. All this can be admitted, yet much is left to be said on the other side. Wit was a recognized warfare in those days, and the honours went too often to the ablest and not to the most honourable; but the reverse is also true that dishonour has now overtaken Pope, not because he was more treacherous than his rivals, but because he was cleverer--time is likely to take this revenge on a man for lying too successfully. Nor was Pope altogether without a sense of rectitude in the warfare of wit. In an age of pensions and time-serving, he remained true to a losing religious and political creed. If, as seems probable, he for some reason accepted a thousand pounds from the Duchess of Marlborough, and then left for publication after his death a satire which he must have known would be applied to that lady, against the discredit of such a stroke must be balanced the fact that he refused to insert a flattering mention of Alderman Barber in his verse at the price of four or five thousand pounds. As the world goes, I count the credit here above the debit. And at any rate the daemonic Duchess, if she read the lines and paid for their suppression, thereby acknowledged the strength of the satire, or, if she could have seen them only after her own slanderous Characters were posthumously printed, would have vailed to one who fought with her own weapons, and more dexterously, in the duel of politics and wit:
But what are these to great Atossa's mind?Outside of that warfare Pope had his admirable traits. His filial piety was scarcely less beautiful because he made poetical capital of it. His friendship, barring the grievous and deplorable feud with Addison, was with his real rivals to fame; and the correspondence of these men, though its frank moralizing may sometimes offend an age grown dull to the distinction between reflection and affectation, is one of the great documents of human nature. When Pope lay "dying of a hundred good symptoms," he said to the priest, after taking the last sacraments: "There is nothing that is meritorious but virtue and friendship, and indeed friendship itself is only a part of virtue." It was indeed so accounted to him. Warburton, possibly as much to affront the world as to elevate Pope, called him "one of the noblest works of God,... an honest man." And Spence, in his anecdotes of Pope's last moments and of Bolingbroke's tenderness, raises their friendship into something almost as beautiful as the faith that gave sanctity to the death-bed scenes of the previous century. No rearrangement can better the seeming disorder of Spence's memoranda:
There is so much trouble in coming into the world, and so much uneasiness in going out of it, that--it is hardly worth [His Lordship's melancholy attitude that morning (the 21st), leaning against Mr. Pope's chair, and crying over him for a considerable time with more concern than can be expressed.]It is well to keep this picture in mind when we read of the dark ways of Pope's wit. When all is said we come back to the estimate of Chesterfield, who knew mankind both in general and in particular better than most others of his age. "Pope," he declared, "was as great an instance as any he quotes of the contrarieties and inconsistencies of human nature; for notwithstanding the malignity of his satires, and some blamable passages in his life, he was charitable to his power, active in doing good offices, and piously attentive to an old bedridden mother." I suspect that Pope's detractors for the most part would be indifferent enough to the blamable passages of his life--for it needs a rare literary detective to trace his winding course--were it not that his greatest poems have become to them what Johnson called one of his letters, "nothing but tedious malignity." The problem to-day is not so much to rehabilitate Pope's personal character--a dubious task--as to explain why his very greatness as a poet has aroused so much resentment; and the first step to this end is to make clear to ourselves wherein his greatness really lies. There are, of course, aspects of his work which ought to appeal to all lovers of verse without distinction, and which need no defence. Mr. Courthope, for instance, has made a strong ease for the variety and beauty of the heroic measure in his hands; and it is certainly a dull taste that will not respond to the sweet felicity of that couplet in the Rape of the Lock:
The meeting points the sacred hair disseveror that will not feel the passion of Eloisa's solitary cry:
Shrines! where their vigils pale-eyed virgins keep,or admire the justness of that simile of the scholar's progress, which Dr. Johnson thought "perhaps the best that English poetry can show":
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,But dexterously wrought as such gems may be, we shall have a feeble ease for Pope if we rest his claims on work in this genre; magnificent as it is, it lacks the glamour, the last touch of magic, which even the little poets of another school could command in isolated passages. You will read through the meanderings of William Chamberlain's Pharonnida, lost in a tedious wonder at its aimless involutions, when suddenly you will be arrested by a far vista like this:
Farewell, Florenza! when both time and placeYou will say that these outlooks into the skies were closed when Pope began to reign. Or you will pause in the elegies of Katherine Philips at such a couplet as this:
A chosen privacy, a cheap content,Pope wrote much, and well, of friendship, but just that note of contented unworldliness he never quite felt, or never sang. In the same way Pope has many brilliant descriptions of nature, but a single line of Thomas Tickell (his contemporary, whose translation of the first book of the Iliad, under Addison's care, was the source of a veritable Iliad of woes) will stir a chord of human sentiment that the poet of Windsor Forest could never touch:
Brown fields their fallow sabbaths keep.By his very supremacy as master of the new school Pope lost what Chamberlain calls
the fantastic clewNo one, I think, would be so narrow-minded as to rank Chamberlain or Katherine Philips or Thomas Tickell above Pope, yet to reach a fair estimate of Pope's greatness we must begin by admitting that even in these minor writers there is an occasional glimpse of divine mysteries of whose existence Pope seems not even to have dreamed. If this were all there could be no gainsaying those who deny him the title of poet altogether. But it is by no means all, and there are other large fields of the imagination which the romantic poets closed to us. Pope, as a matter of fact, has been dethroned as much for his great positive qualities as for his deficiencies. Admirers of Pope, therefore, are likely to feel a touch of impatience at the extravagant praise so often bestowed upon The Rape of the Lock, as if his consummate success in this filagree of the mock-heroic should be held up as an excuse for his failure in the more serious style. There is only one honest way to deal with him; we must treat him squarely as the poet of satire, and, unfortunately for his fame, the world has come to regard satire as scarcely poetry at all. If it is not poetry, then, indeed, Pope was but the fragment of a poet. There are, of course, special reasons why such a satire as the Dunciad, which by reason of its size and scope comes first to mind, should find few and painful readers. All great poems, even those most universal in their human appeal, require a fairly high-developed historic sense for their appreciation, and it is idle to suppose that the Aeneid will mean much to those who have not trained themselves to live in the Latin world, or that Paradise Lost can ever be interesting except to the scholar. No long poem of the past is really popular; but the Dunciad demands for its comprehension an altogether exorbitant acquaintance with men and manners of a brief particular period. Thus, at the beginning of the second book, the hero is raised to his proud eminence of dulness:
High on a gorgeous seat, that far outshoneIt is excellent satire and parody combined, but without footnotes the allusions will fall pointless to all save those who are deep in the recondite frivolities of the age.
And even after the necessary minute knowledge has been acquired---and to the scholar this local habitation and name of the Dunciad may have a special though somewhat artificial attraction--there remains the fact that the current of historic sympathy has set strongly away from Pope, and that most of us in our hearts are stung by his ridicule as were his living enemies. For that battle of the wits was no causeless or merely bookish event, but was part of the great political war of the land. It grew inevitably out of the ruinous divisions, as it echoed the drums and tramplings, of the previous century; and if ink now flowed instead of blood, the contest was hardly the less venomous for that, or the consequences less serious. It all goes back to that terrible mischance which in the days of the Stuarts divided the imagination and the practical sense of England into irreconcilable camps, and separated the loyalty to symbols of authority so far from the actualities of force. That separation kept its character through the following century, if it has not continued down to this day. Bolingbroke's vision of the Patriot King was a reassumption of the faith of the Cavaliers, and as it was a product of the imagination divorced of practical sense, we see its working out in the follies of George III and the loss of an empire. Walpole's policy was essentially a continuation of the empire of Cromwell, and as it failed to make a place for the imagination in its practice, we see the result in the gradual lowering of England's ideal life. At the beginning of the eighteenth century England was the intellectual leader of Europe; at the end she followed at a distance. I know of no more distressing fact in her history than the situation which, at the critical moment of 1714, set almost all the notable men of letters on the losing side--all of them, I should say, with the exception of Addison and Steele, for Defoe at least served Harley and fell with him. Consider the consequences to literature of the coming of the Hanoverians: Harley himself imprisoned and tried for his head; Bolingbroke frightened out of the country; Atterbury exiled; Swift confined to Dublin; Parnell also kept in Ireland; Pope cut off from political life and retired to Twickenham; Gay nursing the insult of an offer to be gentleman-usher to the infant Princess Louisa; Prior imprisoned for two years, and then sinking to a frowsy degradation; Arbuthnot removed from St. James's, and at the end writing to Pope his pathetic plea for euthanasia. It was with no mere poetic licence that Pope painted the new sovereignty:
She mounts the throne: her head a cloud conceal'd,There is personal spite aplenty in the Dunciad, innumerable strokes of vicious retaliation and wanton offense--these faults cannot be severed from the character of the author; but beneath these motives of personal satire we shall miss the whole meaning of the poem if we fail to see the passionate warfare of the losing party of wit against the triumphant party of practical common-sense. Picture to yourself one of the dinners at Lord Oxford's, the guests that met there and what they stood for, or call up one of the more intimate companies in the apartments of that great talker and gourmand, Dr. Arbuthnot, at St. James's, and in comparison with these think of what passed in the palace of George I and his son, or even in the chambers of Caroline, and what these things meant to letters. There is no doubt much to admire in the society that Caroline affected, and an evening at St. James's, when the Queen and perhaps Mrs. Clayton drew out the conversation of Berkeley or Clarke or Butler is one of the things I like best to contemplate in those days, even though, as Chesterfield and Horace Walpole unite in saying, the mistress of the palace only bewildered herself in metaphysical disputes which she did not comprehen. But the master of the palace, like his own master, Sir Robert, had, I know, "a contempt for Belles Lettres, which he called trifling," and the Queen herself, I remember, in place of the poets she frowned upon or neglected, showered her favours upon the sad thresher-poet, Stephen Duck, whom she made librarian of her grotto "Merlin's Cave," in Richmond Gardens. George called the grotto "silly stuff"; what he thought of the poor favourite who was patronized to suicide, I do not know. In the contrast of Queen Anne's reign with that of the Hanoverians lies the real meaning of the Dunciad, and therein is the excuse for its bitterness. The pity of it is that politically, at least as we contemplate affairs within a narrow range of years, the Hanoverians were right, and as they seem to us right, we are drawn away from sympathy, even of a literary sort, with the satire that exposed the intellectual bareness of the land.
But there is still a deeper cause of our distaste than the old echoes of faction and our political incompatibility. A great change has come upon us in our attitude towards human nature itself, and, curiously enough, Pope himself is one of the prime movers of this revolution which has carried us away from the very comprehension of his own principal works. For there is this strange paradox in the philosophy of Pope. On the one hand, we have his contemptuous treatment of mankind, as if his satires were no more than a long development of the text of Machiavelli that "all men are caitive [cattivi, captive to the base impulses of egotism], and are ever ready to use the malignity of their spirit, when they have free opportunity." On the other hand, in his Essay on Man, inspired by the dubious optimism of his friend Bolingbroke, we have the deistic conception of the world as the best possible creation and of men as naturally altruistic in desire and as needing only liberty from restraint to develop into unselfishness of action:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;And deism, which, be it noted, was the express theme of the philosophers and divines who hung upon the court of Caroline, won the day, altering our whole conception of society and our manner of judging the individual. We have in the course of the last two hundred years acquired a kind of tenderness for humanity, which causes us to shrink from the old theological notion of absolute evil in the world, and also from the literature of the moralists which was based on the same belief. With this tenderness, if it be not the source of the feeling, our individual sensitiveness has increased enormously, so that we take in a quite personal way the attacks of moralist and satirist on mankind in general. We can listen to the singing of the still sad music of humanity with a delicate self-pity, but from the philosophy of a Rochefoucauld or a Machiavelli we start back as if a hand were laid on a concealed sore. It is certainly true that he who has imbibed deeply this modern humanitarianism with its fashion of mutual flattery, will be repelled from the literature of which Pope's satires are so perfect an example; in those attacks on the meanness and folly and dulness and venality of the world he will suffer a kind of uneasiness, and, taking his revenge by decrying them as a base form of art, will turn for consolation to what Cowper calls the
charity that soothes a lie,I would not say that Machiavelli expressed the whole truth, any more than did the deists, but it may as well be recognized that, without some lingering suspicion of the eternal deceitfulness of the heart and some malicious glee in the unveiling of the deceit, no man shall feel at home in the old battle of the wits. Only the absence of that suspicion and glee can account, I think, for the common apathy towards Pope's masterpiece, the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, which is at once the prologue and the consummation of his satires.
For myself I will admit frankly that I have read the Epistle oftener, perhaps, than any other English poem except Lycidas, and that long familiarity with its lines has given me always a deepening admiration for its art. If it is not poetry, I do not know where poetry is to be found. That Pope's inspiration moves on a lower plane than Milton's--though his art is as flawless--I should be the last to deny. Yet in a way their themes, despite the great difference of their age and faith, have unexpected points of contact. Milton, like the poet of Queen Anne, wrote in the heat of battle, and with him, too, fecit indignatio versus. He was moved by a sublime rage against those who, as he believed, were degrading the Church and fattening on her spiritual poverty, against the blind mouths who, for their bellies' sake, were creeping into the fold, and against their lean and flashy songs. In contrast to this contagion he draws in a picture the true beauty and peace of the shepherd's trade, and the sweet companionship of those who walk therein, singing together their eager Doric lays, as it were an image and foretaste of the heavenly societies and of the unexpressive nuptial song.
The gap from Milton's theme to Pope's may seem complete, yet in reality one is the true successor of the other, and nothing can better show the mischievous confusion resulting from the division in the Stuart days than the fact that the practical party which Milton represented--so far as he can be said to have represented anybody but himself---was now the people of Dulness, while the party of the imagination, as we see it in the writings of Swift and Pope, was divested of all the magnificences of morality. Yet if the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot lacks Milton's mighty impulse of religion and draws from lower springs of Helicon, it still has its great compensations. The indignation is as terrible, if its causes are more mixed. Here, even more ruinously than in the Dunciad, and without the longer poem's tediousness of obscure detail, the dreaded secret is revealed--
That secret to each fool, that he's an ass.We may doubt what was the exact nature of that two-handed engine which Milton suspended against the enemies of Puritanism, but there is nothing ambiguous about the revenge of Pope, whether with one blade he hews down his open enemies or with the other attacks his pretended friends. From the opening appeal to the poet's old and faithful servant:
Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigued I said;to the last fling at the hypocrites:
One from all Grub-street will my fame defend,there mis a succession of lines of almost dazzling wit, and every line a stab. Thackeray, as the father of Pendennis and the half-ironical patron of the Grub Street of his own day, has some pretty words of abuse upon Pope for fixing in the public mind this notion of the snarling, starving attic-world of authorship. No doubt Pope has touched up the picture with high lights, but an acquaintance with the lesser literature of the day, and with the periodicals, not omitting Pope's own blackguardly Grub Street Journal, gives all the justification needed for the portrait. And here again we shall miss the point if we take this fury as purely personal. There were principles involved, though Pope himself, I dare say, never really knew the difference between his principles and his spite. Something more than personal hatred envenoms the deadly caricature of Lord Hervey and the desire to "flap this bug with gilded wings." With the culmination of the satire,
Or at the ear of Eve, familiar toad,should be read Jonathan Richardson's comment:
I have heard that this lord had actually a seat managed behind the queen's hunting chaise, where he sat perched behind her dose at her ear, but he could never stand it above three or four times. Besides the ridicule of his friends, folks hooted at him as the machine passed along.The real animus of the attack is the relation of Hervey to Caroline and the Hanoverian court, and all that this meant to the intellectual and imaginative life of England. This, too, must be the palliation for the portrait of Addison, though it may scarcely excuse the author's shiftiness in regard to the date of writing and publishing the lines. They must be quoted:
Peace to all such! but were there one whose firesOf the exquisite finish of these verses there can, I suppose, be no question, unless De Quincy's frivolous criticism is to be listened to. The other day, while they were fresh in my memory, a friend of mine who loves and gathers beautiful things was showing me his collection of Japanese swordguards; and as I looked at those wonderfully wrought plates of steel and considered their ancient place on the instruments of battle, it occurred to me that their craftsmanship was not unlike that which had gone into the making of this detached masterpiece of words. And it seemed to me that the rectitude and patience of the work in each ease was one of the causes of their perpetual charm. I have a prejudice in favor of genius, an invincible feeling that true art is in some way based on truth. And so, whether this portrait of Addison was written, as Warburton declares, in 1815, because the Earl of Warwick, Addison's stepson, had warned Pope of Addison's jealousy and of his instigation of Gildon to publish a scurrilous pamphlet against his supposed friend, or because Pope believed Addison to be responsible for Tickell's rival translation of the Iliad, whatever may have been the devious ways of Pope in explaining and spreading abroad the satire--I am convinced that the portrait was not entirely without similitude. In some way the jealousies of Addison's trade had set free the deceitful spirit of egotism that hides beneath the fairest character. It must be remembered also that in the year when the satire was written, and when the circle of Pope was suffering in so many ways from the death of Queen Anne, Addison, as Chief Secretary to Ireland, was enjoying the fruits of his service to the Whigs. He was, I believe, the only man of great parts in pure literature who profited by the new regime. That, indeed, may be to his credit politically; it will help to explain, nevertheless, why Pope placed him, not among the dunces, for that would have been to stultify the writer, but among those who in the desperate battle of the mind followed the false standard--the one lost leader, when so many lesser and more ignoble men were faithful. I think Pope had loved, and did always admire, Addison. There is the true pathos of wit--and wit may have its tears--a cry of grief from a very great bitterness and regret in the last line,
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he!If the emotion here be not genuine, we may as well shut our bosoms to every appeal of books.
But there is in this satire something besides sorrow for the perversion, or at least the failure, of a noble friend; it must be read in connection with Pope's own feeling of weariness, if not of degradation. By the side of this scorn of the dull and the base, runs the contrasted note of friendship, which was always the finest trait of his character. Nowhere else does he express the union that bound together this body of defeated wits with so fine a charm as in the lines to the genial, much-beloved physician:
Friend to my life, which did not you prolong,In comparison with that peaceful bond, of what profit was the long-protracted and in the end losing enmity which inspired his satire? What evil genius projected him into this hateful air of conflict?--
Why did I write? What sin to me unknownTo understand the Epistle we must read it as Pope's apologia pro vita sua, at once an excuse for the warfare in which his days had passed and an acknowledgement of their waste and bitter fruit. With a kind of childlike and, I think, utterly sincere regret he compares the quiet tenor of his father's life with the discordant ambitions of literature, and counts as the one indisputable blessing to himself the homely respect for that life which he had preserved against all the inroads of the world's malice:
O friend! May each domestic bliss be thine!Not Goldsmith himself painted a sweeter picture of resignation and piety; and, whatever else may have been true of Pope, these lines also speak the truth of him.
It may seem that the beauty of these contrasted notes in Pope's greatest poem is lost to the world to-day, because one of them at least, the warfare of the wits, was a temporary thing, now long forgotten and of interest only to the special student. To a certain degree and in the matter of form, this is no doubt the ease. Yet the warfare substantially is not ended, and shall not end while the differences of human nature remain unreconciled. Men in this living age, always a few, are still fighting for the rights of the mind against a dull and delusive materialism, for the freedom of the imagination against a prosaic tyranny, for a pure and patient ambition against the quick success of vanity and pliant cleverness, for the reality of human nature against a fatuous self-complacency. To these the triumphant satire of Pope is a perpetual encouragement, while his pathetic apology expresses for them the relief needed when success appears far away, or, even if near, not worth the cost in the humiliating wager of soul against soul. Nor is the theme of the Epistle without its more universal aspect. For after all life itself, not for the wit only, but for each man in his place, is a contest, and poetry, from the time when Homer portrayed his heroes battling with sword and fire on the banks of the Simois, and longing for the peace of hearth and kindred and friends across the seas, has been the expression, varying in form and instruments, of that inevitable fate. The presentation of this truth may in Pope be narrowed to a particular manner and time, it may assume ignoble images and speak too often in reprehensible language, nevertheless he who does not respond to the deep emotion and humanity underlying the Satires has travelled but a short way into the realm of letters; he has even, I dare assert, felt but a little of the great realities of man's life.
 Mr. Pope: His Life and Times, by George Paston [Miss E.M. Symonds]. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1909.
 The phrase, "The same," indicates that the words are Lord Bolingbroke's.
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