Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/97

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83
POPE, ALEXANDER


His aim was simply to condense, methodize, and give as perfect and novel expression as he could to floating opinions about the poet's aims and methods, and the critic's duties, to “ what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed” (l. 298). “ The town ” was interested in belies lettres, and given to conversing on the subject; Pope's essay was simply a brilliant contribution to the fashionable conversation. The youthful author said that he did not expect the sale to be quick because “ not one gentleman in sixty, even of liberal education, could understand it.” The sales were slow until Pope caused copies to be sent to Lord Lansdowne and others, but its success was none the less brilliant for the delay. The town was fairly-dazzled by the young poet's learning, judgment, and felicity of expression. Many of the admirers of the poem doubtless would have thought less of it if they had not believed all the maxims to be original. “ I admired, ” said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “Mr Pope's Essay on Criticism at first very much, because I had not then read any of the ancient critics, and did not know that it was all stolen.” Pope gained credit for much that might have been found, where he found it, in the Institutes of Quintilian, in the numerous critical writings of René Rapin, and in René le Bossu's treatise on epic poetry. Addison has been made responsible for the exaggerated value once set on the essay, but Addison's paper (Spectator, No. 253) was not unmixed praise. He deprecated the attacks made by Pope on contemporary literary reputations, although he did full justice to the poet's metrical skill. Addison and Pope became acquainted with one another, and Pope's sacred eclogue, “ Messiah, ” was printed as No. 378 of the Spectator. In the Essay on Criticism Pope provoked one bitter personal enemy in John Dennis, the critic, by a description of him as Appius, who “ stares, tremendous, with a th1'eat'ning eye.” Dennis retorted in Reflections . upon a late Rhapsody . . (1711), abusing Pope among other things for his personal deformity. Pope never forgot this brutal attack, w hich he described in a note inserted after Dennis's death, as late as 1743, as written “ in a manner perfectly lunatic.”

The Rape of the Lock in its first form appeared in 1712 in Lintot's Miscellanies; the “machinery” of sylphs and gnomes was an afterthought, and the poem was republished as we now have it early in 1714. William, 4th Baron Petre, had surreptitiously cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair, and the liberty had been resented; Pope heard the story from his friend John Caryll, who suggested that the breach between the families might be healed by making the incident the subject of a mock-heroic poem like Boileau's Lutrin. Pope caught at the hint; the mock-heroic treatment of the pretty frivolities of fashionable life just suited his freakish sprightliness of wit, and his studies of the grand epic at the time put him in excellent vein. The Rape of the Lock is admitted to be a masterpiece of airiness, ingenuity, and exquisite finish. But the poem struck Taine as a piece of harsh, scornful, indelicate buffoonery, a mere succession of oddities and contrasts, of expressive figures unexpected and grinning, an example of English insensibility to French sweetness and refinement. Sir Leslie Stephen objected on somewhat different grounds to the poet's tone towards women. His laughter at Pope's raillery was checked by the fact that women are spoken of in the poem as if they were all like Belinda. The poem shows the hand of the satirist who was later to assert that “ every woman is at heart a rake, ” in the epistle addressed to Martha Blount. Windsor Forest, modelled on Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill, had been begun, according to Pope's account, when he was sixteen or seventeen. It was published in March 1713 with a flattering dedication to the secretary for war, George Granville, Lord Lansdowne, and an opportune allusion to the peace of Utrecht. This was a nearer approach to taking a political side than Pope had yet made. His principle had been to keep clear of politics, and not to attach himself to any of the sets into which literary men were divided by party. Although inclined to the Iacobites by his religion, he never took any part in the plots for the restoration of the Stuarts. and he was on friendly terms with the Whig coterie, being a frequent guest at the coffee-house kept by Daniel Button, where Addison held his “ little senate.” He had contributed his poem, “ The Messiah ” to the Spectator; he had written an article or two in the Guardian, and he wrote a prologue for Addison's Cato. Nevertheless he induced Lintot the bookseller to obtain from John Dennis a criticism of Cato. On the publication of Dennis's remarks, the violence of which had, as Pope hoped, made their author ridiculous, Pope produced an anonymous pamphlet, The Narrative of Dr Robert Norris concerning the . . . Frenzy of Mr John Dennis (1713), which, though nominally in defence of Addison, had for its main purpose the gratification of Pope's own hostility to Ivennis. Addison disavowed any connivance in this coarse attack in a letter written on his behalf by Steele to Lintot, saying that if he noticed Dennis's attack at all it would be in such 'a way as to allow him no just cause of complaint. Coolncss between Addison and Pope naturally followed this episode. When the Rape of the Lock was published, Addison, who is said to have praised the poem highly to Pope in private, dismissed it in the Spectator with two sentences of patronizing faint praise to the young poet, and, coupling it with Tickell's “Ode on the Prospect of Peace, ” devoted the rest of the article to an elaborate puff of “the pastorals of Mr Philips.”

When Pope showed a leaning to the Tories in Windsor Forest, the members of Addison's coterie made insidious war on him. Within a few weeks of the publication of the poem, and when it was the talk of the town, there began to appear in the Guardian (Nos. 22, 23, 28, 30, 32) a series of articles on “ Pastorals." Not a word was said about Windsor Forest, but everybody knew to what the general principles referred. Modern pastoral poets were ridiculed for introducing Greek moral deities, Greek flowers and fruits, Greek names of shepherds, Greek sports and customs and religious rites. They ought to make use of English rural mythology-hob thrushes, fairies, goblins and witches; they should give English names to their shepherds; they should mention flowers indigenous to English climate and soil; and they should introduce English proverbial sayings, dress, and customs. All excellent principles, and all neglected by Pope in Windsor Forest. The poem was fairly open to criticism in these points; there are many beautiful passages in it, showing close though somewhat professional observation of nature, but the mixture of heathen deities and conventional archaic fancies with modern realities is incongruous, and the comparison of Queen Anne to'Diana was ludicrous. But the sting of the articles did not lie in the truth of the oblique criticisms. The pastorals of Ambrose Philips, published four years before, were again trotted out. Here was a true pastoral poet, the eldest born of Spenser, the worthy successor of Theocritus and Virgil!

Pope took an amusing revenge, which turned the laugh against his assailants. He sent Steele an anonymous paper in continuation of the articles in the Guardian on pastoral poetry, reviewing the poems of Mr Pope by the light of the principles laid down. Ostensibly Pope was censured for breaking the rules, and Philips praised for conforming to them, quotations being given from both. The quotations were sufficient to dispose of the pretensions of poor Philips, and Pope did not choose his own worst passages, accusing himself of actually deviating sometimes into poetry. Although the Guardian's principles were also brought into ridicule by burlesque exemplifications of them after the manner of Gay's Shepherd's Week, Steele, misled by the opening sentences, was at first unwilling to print what appeared to bc a direct attack on Pope, and is said to have asked Pope's consent to the publication, which was graciously granted.

The links that attached Pope to the Tory party were strengthened by a new friendship. His first letter to Swift, who became warmlv attached to him, is dated the 8th of December 1713. Swift had been a leading member of the Brothers Club, from which the famous Scriblerus Club seems to have been an offshoot. The leading members of this informal