( Originally Published 1919 )
POPE is a poet whose very admirers belittle him. Mr. Saintsbury, for instance, even in the moment of inciting us to read him, observes that " it would be scarcely rash to say that there is not an original thought, sentiment, image, or example of any of the other categories of poetic substance to be found in the half a hundred thousand verses of Pope." And he has still less to say in favour of Pope as a man. He denounces him for " rascality " and goes on with characteristic irresponsibility to suggest that " perhaps there is a natural connection between the two kinds of this dexterity of fingering that of the artist in words, and that of the pickpocket or the forger.' If Pope had been a contemporary, Mr. Saintsbury, I imagine, would have stunned him with a huge mattock of adjectives. As it is, he seems to be in two minds whether to bury or to praise him. Luckily, he has tempered his moral sense with his sense of humour, and so comes to the happy conclusion that as a matter of fact, when we read or read about Pope, some of the proofs which are most damning morally, positively increase one's aesthetic delight."
One is interested in Pope's virtues as a poet and his vices as a man almost equally. It is his virtues as a man and his vices as a poet that are depressing., He is usually at his worst artistically when he is at his best morally. He achieves wit through malice:, he achieves only rhetoric through virtue. It is not that one wishes he had been a bad son or a Uriah Heep in his friendships. It is pleasant to remember the pleasure he gave his mother by allowing her to copy out parts of his translation of the Iliad, and one respects him for refusing, a pension of £300 a year out of the secret service money from his friend Craggs. But one wishes that he had put neither his filial piety nor his friendship into writing. Mr. Saintsbury, I see, admires " the masterly and delightful craftsmanship in words of the tribute to Craggs ; but then Mr. Saintsbury also admires the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady—a. mere attitude in verse, as chill as a weeping angel in a graveyard.
Pope's attractiveness is less that of a real man than of an inhabitant of Lilliput, where it is a matter of no importance whether or not one lives in obedience to the Ten Commandments. We can regard him with amusement as a liar, a forger, a glutton, and a slanderer of his kind. If his letters are the dullest letters ever written by a wit, it is because he reveals in them not his real vices but his imaginary virtues. They only, become interesting when we know the secret history of his life and read them as the moralizings of a doll Pecksniff. Historians of literature often assert—mistakenly, I think—that Pliny's letters are dull, because they are merely the literary exercises of a man over conscious of his virtues. But Pliny's virtues, however tip-tilted, were at least real. Pope's letters are the literary exercises of a man platitudinizing about virtues he did not possess. They have an impersonality, like that of the leading articles in The Times. They have all the qualities of the essay except intimate confession.; They are irrelevant scrawls which might as readily have been addressed to one correspondent as another.. So much so is this, that when Pope published them, he altered the names of the recipients of some of them so as to make it appear that they were written to famous persons when, as a matter of fact, they were written to private and little-known friends.
The story of the way in which lie tampered with his letters and arranged for their " unauthorized " publication by a pirate publisher is one of the most amazing in the history of forgery. It was in reference to this that Whitwell Elwin declared that Pope " displayed a complication of imposture, degradation, and effrontery which can only, be paralleled in the lives of professional forgers and swindlers." When he published his correspondence with Wycherley, his con-temporaries were amazed that the boyish Pope should have written with such an air of patronage to the aged Wycherley, and that Wycherley, should have suffered it. We know, now, however, that the correspondence is only in part genuine, and that Pope used portions of his correspondence with Caryll and' published them as though they had been addressed' to Wycherley. Wycherley had remonstrated with Pope on the extravagant compliments he paid him : Pope had remonstrated with Caryll on similar grounds. In the Wycherley, correspondence, Pope omits Wycherley's remonstrance to him and publishes his own remonstrance to Caryll as a letter from himself to Wycherley.
From that time onwards Pope spared no effort in getting his correspondence." surreptitiously " published'. He engaged a go-between, a disreputable actor disguised as a clergyman, to approach Curl, the publisher, with an offer of a stolen collection of letters, and, when the book was announced', he attacked Curll as a villain, and procured a friend in the House of Lords to move a resolution that Curll should be brought before the House on a charge of breach of privilege, one of the letters (it was stated) having been written to Pope by a peer.. Curll took a number of copies of the book with him' to the Lords, and it was discovered that no such letter was included. But the advertisement was a noble one. Unfortunately, even a man of genius could not devise elaborate schemes of this kind without ultimately falling—under suspicion, and Curll wrote a narrative of the events which resulted in seriously discrediting Pope.
Pope was surely one of the least enviable authors who ever lived. He had fame and fortune and friends. But he had not the constitution to enjoy his fortune, and hi friendship he had not the gift of fidelity. He secretly published his correspondence with Swift and then set up a pretence that Swift had been the culprit. He earned from Bolingbroke in the end a hatred that pursued him in the grave. He was always begging Swift to go and live with him at Twickenham. But Swift found even a short visit trying. " Two sick friends never did well together," he wrote in 1727, and he has left us verses descriptive of the miseries of great wits in each other's company: --
Pope has the talent well to speak,
Awhile they on each other look,
" Mr. Pope," he grumbled some years later, " can neither eat nor drink, loves to be alone, and has always some poetical scheme in his head." Swift, luckily, stayed in Dublin and remained Pope's Mend. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu went to Twickenham and became Pope's enemy. The reason seems to have been that he was more eager for an exchange of compliments than for friendship. He affected the attitude of a man in love, when Lady Mary saw in him only a monkey in love. He is even said to have thrown his little makeshift of a body, in its canvas bodice and its three pairs of stockings, at her feet, with the result that she burst out laughing. Pope took his revenge in the Epistle to Martha Blount, where, describing Lady Mary as Sappho, he declared of another lady that her different aspects agreed as ill with each other ---
As Sappho's diamonds with her dirty smock ;
His relations with his contemporaries were too often begun in compliments only to end in abuse, of this kind. Even while he was on good terms with them, he was frequently doing them ill -turns. Thus, he persuaded a publisher to, get Dennis to write abusively of Addison's Cato in order that he might have an excuse in his turn for writing abusively of Dennis, apparently vindicating Addison but secretly taking a revenge of his own. Addison was more embarrassed than pleased by so savage a defence, and hastened to assure Dennis that he had had nothing to do with it. Addison also gave offence to Pope by his too judicious praise of The Rape of the Lock and the translation of the Iliad. Thus began the maniacal suspicion of Addison, which was expressed with the genius of venom in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.
There was never a poet whose finest work needs such a running commentary of discredit as Pope's. He may be said, indeed, to be the only, great poet in reading whom the commentary is as necessary, as the text. One can enjoy Shakespeare or Shelley, without a note : one is inclined even to resent the intrusion of the commentator into the upper regions of poetry. But Pope's verse is a guide to his age and the incidents: of his waspish existence, lacking a key to which one misses three-fourths of the entertainment. The Dunciad without footnotes is one of the obscurest poems in existence : with footnotes it becomes a perfect epic of literary entomology. And it is the same with at least half of his work. Thus, in the Imitations of Horace, a reference to Russell tells us little till we read in a delightful footnote :
There was a Lord Russell who, by living too luxuriously, had quite spoiled his constitution. He did not love sport, but used to go out with his dogs every day only to hunt for an appetite. If he felt anything of that, he would cry out, " Oh, I have found it ! " turn short round and ride home again, though they were in the midst of the finest chase. It was this lord who, when he met a beggar, and was entreated by him to give him something because he was almost famished with hunger, called him a " happy dog."
There may have been a case for neglecting Pope before Mr. Elwin and Mr. Courthope edited and annotated him--though he had been edited well before—but their monumental edition has made him of all English poets one of the most incessantly entertaining.
Pope, however, is a charmer in himself. His venom has graces. He is a stinging insect, but of how brilliant a hue !. There are few satires in literature richer in the daintiness of malice than the Epistle to Martha Blount and the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. The " characters " of women in the former are among the most precious of those railleries of sex in which mankind has always loved to indulge., The summing-up of the perfect woman :
And mistress of herself, though china fall, is itself perfect in its wit. And the, fickle lady, Narcissa, is a portrait in porcelain :
Narcissa's nature, tolerably mild.
To make a wash, would hardly stew a child ;
The study of Chloe, who " wants a heart," is equally delicate and witty ;
Virtue she finds too painful an endeavour,
The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot is still more dazzling. The venom is passionate without ever ceasing to be witty. Pope has composed a masterpiece of his vanities and hatreds. The characterizations of Addison as Atticus, and of Lord Hervey, as Sporus :
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk—
Sporus, " the bug with gilded' wings —are portraits one may almost call beautiful in their bitter phrasing. There is nothing make-believe here as there is in the virtue of the letters. This is Pope's confession, the image of his soul. Elsewhere in Pope the. accomplish-ment is too often rhetorical, though The Rape of the Lock is as delicate in artifice as a French fairy-tale, the Dunciad an amusing assault of a major Lilliputian on minor Lilliputians, and the Essay on Criticism—what a regiment of witty lines to be written by a youth of twenty or twenty-one !,much nearer being a great essay in verse than is generally, admitted nowadays. As for the Essay on Man, one can read it more than once only out of a sense of duty., Pope has nothing to tell us that we want to know about mari except in so far as he dislikes him. We praise him as the poet who makes remarks—as the poet, one might almost say, who makes faces. It is when he sits in the scorner's chair, whether in good humour pr in bad, that he is the little lord of versifiers.
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