Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/96

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82
POPE, ALEXANDER

POPE, ALEXANDER (1688-1744), English poet, was born in Lombard Street, London, on the 21st of May 1688. His father, Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic, was a linen-draper who afterwards retired from business with a small fortune, and nxed his residence about 1700 at Binfield in Windsor Forest. Pope's education was desultory. His father's religion would have excluded him from the public schools, even had there been no other impediment to his being sent there. Before he was twelve he had obtained a smattering of Latin and Greek from various masters, from a priest in Hampshire, from a schoolmaster at Twyford near Winchester, from Thomas Deane, who kept a school in Marylebone and afterwards at Hyde Park Corner, and finally from another priest at home. Between his twelfth and his seventeenth years excessive application to study undermined his health, and he developed the personal deformity which was in so many ways to distort his view of life. He thought himself dying, but through a friend, Thomas (afterwards the abbé) Southcote, he obtained the advice of the famous physician John Radcliffe, who prescribed diet and exercise. Under this treatment the boy recovered his strength and spirits. “ He thought himself the better, ” Spence says, “ in some respects for not having had a regular education. He (as he observed in particular) read originally for the sense, whereas we are taught for so many years to read only for words.” He afterwards learnt French and Italian, probably in a similar way. He read translations of the Greek, Latin, French and Italian poets, and by the age of twelve, when he was finally settled at home and left to himself, he was not only a confirmed reader, but an eager aspirant to the highest honours in poetry. There is a story, which chronological considerations make extremely improbable, that in London he had crept into Will's coffee-house to look at Dryden, and a further tale that the old poet had given him a shilling for a translation of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe; he had lampooned his schoolmaster; he had made a play out of John Ogilby's Iliad for his schoolfellows; and before he was fifteen he had written an epic, his hero being Alcander, a prince of Rhodes, or, as he states elsewhere, Deucalion.

There were, among the Roman Catholic families near Binfield, men capable of giving a direction to his eager ambition, men of literary tastes, and connexions with the literary world. These held together as members of persecuted communities always do, and were kept in touch with one another by the family priests. Pope was thus brought under the notice of Sir William Trumbull, a retired diplomatist living at Easthampstead, within a few miles of Binfield. Thomas Dancastle, lord of the manor of Binfield, took an active interest in his writings, and at Whiteknights, near Reading, lived another Roman Catholic, Anthony Englefield, “ a great lover of poets and poetry.” Through him Pope made the acquaintance of Wycherley and of Henry Cromwell, who was a distant cousin of the Protector, a gay man about town, and something of a pedant. Wycherley introduced him to William Walsh, then of great renown as a critic.[1] Before the poet was seventeen he was admitted in this way to the society of London “ wits ” and men of fashion, and was cordially encouraged as a prodigy. Wycherley's correspondence with Pope was skilfully manipulated by the younger man to represent Wycherley as submitting, at first humbly and then with an ill-grace, to Pope's criticisms. The publication (Elwin and Courthope, vol. v.) of the originals of Wycherley's letters from MSS; at Longleat showed how seriously the relations between the two friends, which ceased in 1710, had been misrepresented in the version of the correspondence which Pope chose to submit to the public. Walsh's contribution to his development was the advice to study “correctness” “About fifteen,” he says, “I got acquainted with Mr. Walsh. He used to encourage me much, and used to tell me that there was one way left of excelling; for, though we had several great poets, we never had any one great poet that was correct, and he desired me to make that my study and aim ” (Spence, p. 280). Trumbull turned Pope's attention to the French critics, out of the study of whom grew the Essay on Criticism; he suggested the subject of Windsor Forest, and he started the idea of translating Homer.

It says something for Pope's docility at this stage that he recognized so soon that a long course of preparation was needed for such a magnum opus, and began steadily and patiently to discipline himself. The epic was put aside and afterwards burnt; versification was industriously practised in short “ essays ”; and an elaborate study was made of accepted critics and models. ' He learnt most, as he acknowledged, from Dryden, but the harmony of his verse also owed something to an earlier writer, George Sandys, the translator of Ovid. At the beginning of the 18th century Dryden's success had given great vogue to translations and modernizations. The air was full of theories as to the best way of doing such things. What Dryden had touched Pope did not presume to meddle with-Dryden was his hero and master; but there was much more of the same kind to be done. Dryden had rewritten three of the Canterbury tales; Pope tried his hand at the M erchanfs Tale, and the Prologue to the Wife of Bal/z's Tale, and produced also an imitation of the H onse of Fame. Dryden had translated Virgil; Pope experimented on the Thebais of Statius, Ovid's H eroides and M metamorphoses, and the Odyssey. He knew little Latin and less Greek, but there were older versions in English which helped him to the sense; and, when the correspondents to Whom he submitted his versions pointed out mistranslations, he could answer that he had always agreed with them, but that he had deferred to the older translators against his own judgment. It was one of Pope's little Vanities to try to give the impression that his metrical skill was more precocious even than it was, and we cannot accept his published versions of Statius and Chaucer (published in “ miscellanies ” at intervals between 1709 and 1714) as incontrovertible evidence of his proficiency at the age of sixteen or seventeen, the date, according to his own assertion, of their composition. But it is indisputable that at the age of seventeen his skill in verse astonished a veteran critic like Walsh, and some of his pastorals were in the hands of Sir George Granville (afterwards Lord Lansdowne) before 1706. His metrical letter to Cromwell, which Elwin dates in 1707, when Pope was nineteen, is a brilliant feat of versification, and has turns of wit in it as easy and spirited as any to be found in his mature satires. Pope was twenty-one when he sent the “ Ode on Solitude ” to Cromwell, and said it was written before he was twelve years old.

Precocious Pope was, but he was' also industrious; and he spent some eight or nine years in arduous and enthusiastic discipline, reading, studying, experimenting, taking the advice of some and laughing in his sleeve at the advice of others, “poetry his only business,” he said, “and idleness his only pleasure, ” before anything of his appeared in print. In these preliminary studies he seems to have guided himself by the maxim formulated in aletter to Walsh (dated July 2, 1706) that “ it seems not so much the perfection of sense to say things that had never been said before, as to express those best that have been said oftenest.” His first publication was his “Pastorals.” Tacob Tonson, the bookseller, had seen these pastorals in the hands of Walsh and Congreve, and sent a polite note (April 20, 1706) to Pope asking that he might have them for one of his miscellanies. They appeared accordingly in May 1709 at the end of the sixth volume of Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies, containing contributions from Ambrose Philips, Sheffield, Garth and Rowe, with “ January and May, ” Pope's version of Chaucer's “ Merchant's Tale.”

Pope's next publication was the Essay on Criticism (1711), written two years earlier, and printed without the author's name. “ In every Work regard the writer's end ” (l. 255) is one of its sensible precepts, and one that is often neglected by critics of the essay, who comment upon it as if Pope's end had been to produce an original and profound treatise on first principles.

  1. The dates of Pope's correspondence with Wycherley are 1704-1710; with a.lsh, 1705-1707, and with Cromwell, 1708-1727; with John Caryll (1666-1736) and his son, also neighbours, 1710-1735-