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Alexander Poep - The End

( Originally Published 1880 )



THE last satires were published in 1738. Six years of life still remained to Pope ; his intellectual powers were still vigorous, and his pleasure in their exercise had not ceased. The only fruit, however, of his labours during this period was the fourth book of the Dunciad. He spent much time upon bringing out new editions of his works, and upon the various intrigues connected with the Swift correspondence. But his health was beginning to fail: The ricketty framework was giving way, and failing to answer the demands' of the fretful and excitable brain. In the spring of 1744 the poet was visibly breaking up ; he suffered from dropsical asthma, and seems to have made matters worse by putting himself in the hands of a notorious quack—a Dr. Thomson. The end was evidently near as he completed his fifty-sixth year. Friends, old and new, were often in attendance. Above all, Bolingbroke, the venerated friend of thirty years' standing; Patty Blount, the woman whom he loved best ; and the excel-lent Spence, who preserved some of the last words of the dying man. The scene, as he saw it, was pathetic ; perhaps it is not less pathetic to us, for whom it has another side as of grim tragic humour.

Three weeks before his death Pope was sending off copies of the Ethic Epistles—apparently with the Atossa lines—to his friends. " Here I am, like Socrates," he said, " dispensing my morality amongst my friends just as I am dying." Spence watched him as anxiously as his disciples watched Socrates. He was still sensible to kindness. Whenever Miss Blount came in, the failing spirits raffled for a moment. He was always saying something kindly of his friends, " as if his humanity had outlasted his understanding." Bolingbroke, when Spence made the remark, said that he had never known a man with so tender a heart for his own friends or for mankind. " I have known him," he added, " these thirty years, and value myself more for that man's love than—" and his voice was lost in tears. At moments Pope could still be playful. " Here I am, dying of a hundred good symptoms," he replied to some flattering report, but his mind was beginning to wander. He complained of seeing things as through a curtain. " What's that ? " he said, pointing to the air, and then, with a smile of great plea-sure, added softly, "'twas a vision." His religious sentiments still edified his hearers. " I am so certain," he said, " of the soul's being immortal, that I seem to feel it within me, as it were by intuition ;" and early one morning he rose from bed and tried to begin an essay upon immortality, apparently in a state of semi-delirium. On his last day he sacrificed, as Chesterfield rather cynically observes, his cock to AEsculapius. Hooke, a zealous Catholic friend, asked him whether he would not send for a priest. " I do not suppose that it is essential," said Pope, "but it will look right, and I heartily thank you for putting me in mind of it." A priest was brought, and Pope received the last sacraments with great fervour and resignation. Next day, on May 30th, 1744, he died so peacefully that his friends could not determine the exact moment of death.

It was a soft and touching end ; and yet we must once more look at the other side. Warburton and Boling-broke both appear to have been at the side of the dying man, and before very long they were to be quarrelling over his grave. Pope's will showed at once that his quarrels were hardly to end with his death. He had quarrelled, though the quarrel had been made up, with the generous Allen, for some cause not ascertainable, except that it arose from the mutual displeasure of Mrs. Allen and Miss Blount. It is pleasant to notice that, in the course of the quarrel, Pope mentioned Warburton, in a letter to Miss Blount, as a sneaking parson ; but Warburton was not aware of the flash of sarcasm. Pope, as Johnson puts it, " polluted his will with female resentment." He left a legacy of 1501. to Allen, being, as he added, the amount received from his friend—for himself or for charitable purposes ; and requested Allen, if he should refuse the legacy for himself, to pay it to the Bath Hospital. Allen adopted this suggestion, saying quietly that Pope had always been a bad accountant, and would have come nearer the truth if he had added a cypher to the figures.

Another fact came to light, which produced a fiercer out-burst. Pope, it was found, had printed a whole edition (1500 copies) of the Patriot King, Bolingbroke's most polished work. The motive could have been nothing but a desire to preserve to posterity what Pope considered to be a monument worthy of the highest genius, and was so far complimentary to Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke, how-ever, considered it as an act of gross treachery. Pope had received the work on condition of keeping it strictly private, and showing it to only a few friends. Moreover, he had corrected it, arranged it, and altered or omitted passages according to his own taste, which naturally did not suit the author's. In 1749 Bolingbroke gave a copy to Mallet for publication, and prefixed an angry statement to expose the breach of trust of " a man on whom the author thought he could entirely depend." Warburton rushed to the defence of Pope and the demolition of Bolingbroke. A savage controversy followed, which survives only in the title of one of Bolingbroke's pamphlets, A Familiar Epistle to the most Impudent Man living—a transparent paraphrase for Warburton. Pope's behaviour is too much of a piece with previous underhand transactions, but scarcely deserves further condemnation.

A single touch remains. Pope was buried, by his own directions, in a vault in Twickenham church, near the monument erected to his parents. It contained a simple inscription ending with the words "Parentibus bene merentibus filius fecit." To this, as he directed in his will, was to be added simply " et sibi." This was done ; but seventeen years afterwards the clumsy Warburton erected in the same church another monument to Pope himself, with this stupid inscription. Poeta loquitur.

For one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Heroes and kings, your distance keep !
In peace let one poor poet sleep
Who never flatter'd folks like you ;
Let Horace blush and Virgil too

Most of us can tell from experience how grievously our posthumous ceremonials often jar upon the tenderest feelings of survivors. Pope's valued friends seem to have done their best to surround the last scene of his life with painful associations ; and Pope, alas ! was an unconscious accomplice. To us of a later generation it is impossible to close this strange history without a singular mixture of feelings. Admiration for the extraordinary literary talents, respect for the energy which, under all disadvantages of health and position, turned these talents to the best account ; love of the real tender-heartedness which formed the basis of the man's character ; pity for the many sufferings to which his morbid sensitiveness exposed him; contempt for the meannesses into which he was hurried ; ridicule for the insatiable vanity which prompted his most degrading subterfuges ; horror for the bitter animosities which must have tortured the man who cherished them even more than his victims—are suggested simultaneously by the name of Pope. As we look at him in one or other aspect, each feeling may come uppermost in turn. The most abiding sentiment—when we think of him as a literary phenomenon—is admiration for the exquisite skill which enabled him to discharge a function, not of the highest kind, with a perfection rare in any department of literature. It is more difficult to say what will be the final element in our feeling about the man. Let us hope that it may be the pity which, after a certain lapse of years, we may be excused for conceding to the victim of moral as well as physical diseases.



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