|It was in 1819 that a controversy arose over the question, Was Pope a poet?
To have asked that in 1719 would have indicated that the questioner was
ignorant; to have asked it a half century later might have raised a doubt
as to his sanity, for by that time Pope was acclaimed as a master by the
great majority of poets in England and America. We judge now, looking at
him in perspective and comparing him with Chaucer or Burns, that he was not
a great poet but simply the kind of poet that the age demanded. He belongs
to eighteenth-century London exclusively, and herein he differs from the
master poets who are at home in all places and expressive of all time.
Pope is an interesting but not a lovable figure. Against the
petty details of his life we should place, as a background, these
amazing achievements: that this poor cripple, weak of body and
spiteful of mind, was the supreme literary figure of his age; that
he demonstrated how an English poet could live by his pen, instead
of depending on patrons; that he won greater fame and fortune than
Shakespeare or Milton received from their contemporaries; that he
dominated the fashion of English poetry during his lifetime, and
for many years after his death.
Such are the important facts of Pope's career. For the rest: he was
born in London, in the year of the Revolution (1688). Soon after
that date his father, having gained a modest fortune in the linen
business, retired to Binfield, on the fringe of Windsor Forest.
There Pope passed his boyhood, studying a little under private
tutors, forming a pleasurable acquaintance with Latin and Greek
poets. From fourteen to twenty, he tells us, he read for amusement;
but from twenty to twenty-seven he read for "improvement and
instruction." The most significant traits of these early years were
his determination to be a poet and his talent for imitating any
writer who pleased him. Dryden was his first master, from whom he
inherited the couplet, then he imitated the French critic Boileau
and the Roman poet Horace. By the time he was twenty four the
publication of his Essay on Criticism and The Rape of the
Lock had made him the foremost poet of England. By his
translation of Homer he made a fortune, with which he bought a
villa at Twickenham. There he lived in the pale sunshine of
literary success, and there he quarreled with every writer who
failed to appreciate his verses, his jealousy overflowing at last
in The Dunciad (Iliad of Dunces), a witty but venomous
lampoon, in which he took revenge on all who had angered him.
Next to his desire for glory and revenge, Pope loved to be
considered a man of high character, a teacher of moral philosophy.
His ethical teaching appears in his Moral Epistles, his
desire for a good reputation is written large in his Letters, which
he secretly printed, and then alleged that they had been made
public against his wish. These Letters might impress us as the
utterances of a man of noble ideals, magnanimous with his friends,
patient with his enemies, until we reflect that they were published
by the author for the purpose of giving precisely that impression.
Another side of Pope's nature is revealed in this: that to some of
his friends, to Swift and Bolingbroke for example, he showed
gratitude, and that to his parents he was ever a dutiful son. He
came perhaps as near as he could to a real rather than an
artificial sentiment when he wrote of his old mother:
Me let the tender office long engage,
To rock the cradle of reposing age.
Works of Pope
Pope's first important work, An Essay on Criticism
(1711), is an echo of the rules which Horace had formulated in his Ars
Poetica, more than seventeen centuries before Pope was born. The French
critic Boileau made an alleged improvement of Horace in his L'Art
Poétique, and Pope imitated both writers with his rimed Essay,
in which he attempted to sum up the rules by which poetry should be judged.
And he did it, while still under the age of twenty-five, so brilliantly
that his characterization of the critic is unmatched in our literature. A
few selections will serve to show the character of the work:
First follow nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged and universal light,
Life, force and beauty must to all impart,
At once the source and end and test of Art.
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent, as more suitable.
Rape of the Lock
Pope's next important poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712), is his most
original and readable work. The occasion of the poem was that a fop stole a
lock of hair from a young lady, and the theft plunged two families into a
quarrel which was taken up by the fashionable set of London. Pope made a
mock-heroic poem on the subject, in which he satirized the fads and
fashions of Queen Anne's age. Ordinarily Pope's fancy is of small range,
and proceeds jerkily, like the flight of a woodpecker, from couplet to
couplet; but here he attempts to soar like the eagle. He introduces dainty
aerial creatures, gnomes, sprites, sylphs, to combat for the belles and
fops in their trivial concerns; and herein we see a clever burlesque of the
old epic poems, in which gods or goddesses entered into the serious affairs
of mortals. The craftsmanship of the poem is above praise; it is not only a
neatly pointed satire on eighteenth-century fashions but is one of the most
graceful works in English verse.
Essay of Man
An excellent supplement to The Rape of the Lock, which pictures the
superficial elegance of the age, is An Essay on Man, which reflects
its philosophy. That philosophy under the general name of Deism, had
fancied to abolish the Church and all revealed religion, and had set up a
new-old standard of natural faith and morals. Of this philosophy Pope had
small knowledge; but he was well acquainted with the discredited
Bolingbroke, his "guide, philosopher and friend," who was a fluent exponent
of the new doctrine, and from Bolingbroke came the general scheme of the
Essay on Man.
The poem appears in the form of four epistles, dealing with man's place in
the universe, with his moral nature, with social and political ethics, and
with the problem of happiness. These were discussed from a common-sense
viewpoint, and with feet always on solid earth. As Pope declares:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man....
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Throughout the poem these two doctrines of Deism are kept in sight: that
there is a God, a Mystery, who dwells apart from the world; and that man
ought to be contented, even happy, in his ignorance of matters beyond his
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear: whatever is, is right.
The result is rubbish, so far as philosophy is concerned, but in the heap
of incongruous statements which Pope brings together are a large number of
quotable lines, such as:
Honor and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part, there all the honor lies.
It is because of such lines, the care with which the whole poem is
polished, and the occasional appearance of real beauty (such as the passage
beginning, "Lo, the poor Indian") that the Essay on Man occupies
such a high place in eighteenth-century literature.
The Quality of Pope
It is hardly necessary to examine other works of Pope, since the poems
already named give us the full measure of his strength and weakness. His
talent is to formulate rules of poetry, to satirize fashionable society, to
make brilliant epigrams in faultless couplets. His failure to move or even
to interest us greatly is due to his second-hand philosophy, his inability
to feel or express emotion, his artificial life apart from nature and
humanity. When we read Chaucer or Shakespeare, we have the impression that
they would have been at home in any age or place, since they deal with
human interests that are the same yesterday, to-day and forever; but we can
hardly imagine Pope feeling at ease anywhere save in his own set and in his
own generation. He is the poet of one period, which set great store by
formality, and in that period alone he is supreme.