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LEXANDER POPE was born in A London, on the 21st of May, 1688, 2 2 twelve years before the death of
Dryden, the great poet whom he De was destined to succeed and to rival. His parents were devout Roman Catholics, and their boy, an only son, was almost wholly educated under private tuition. For a short time he attended a school at Twyford, and was then sent to one in London ; but according to his own report he learned nothing at either. All the teaching he ever had “ extended,” he said, " a very little way," and he had the additional and far greater disadvantage of a crippled and feeble body, that made his life one “long disease.” When Pope was twelve years old, his father left London to reside at Binfield, near Windsor, and there the youth who “lisped in numbers," discovered an ardent desire for knowledge. When in his fifteenth year, he went to London to learn French and Italian, but did not make much progress in either language during the few months of his London sojourn. Voltaire once said that Pope knew nothing of French; but if he was unable to speak the language, he appears to have read it without difficulty, and was certainly familiar with Boileau, whose discretion as a satirist he would have been wise to follow. After this he taught himself both Greek and Latin. “I did not follow the grammar,” he said to his friend Spence, “but rather hunted in the authors for a syntax of my own, and then began translating any parts that pleased me particularly in the best Greek and Latin poets, and by that means formed my taste, 'which, I think, verily about sixteen was very nearly as good as it is now.” Pope adds that in his “great reading period” at Binfield he went through all the best critics, almost all the English, French, and Latin poets of any name; the minor poets; Homer and some other of the greater Greek poets in the original, and Tasso and Ariosto in translations. His studies were desultory, but they were so severe that at seventeen he thought himself dying. Idleness and horse exercise, the pleasant remedies prescribed for him, happily proved successful, and he was able before long to return to his pursuits, and to poetry, the dearest of them all. When very young he had been taken to Will's coffee-house to see Dryden, and “who does not wish,” says Dr. Johnson, “ that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer?” Cowley said that the perusal of the “Faerie Queene” made him “irrecoverably a poet.” That wonderful poem also charmed the youthful fancy of Pope, but it was Dryden and not Spenser who was destined to be his master, and he expressly states, as Gray stated himself at a later period, that he learnt versification wholly from Dryden's works. For the richer melody, if less regular verse of the Elizabethans, Pope had a regardless ear. He preferred the smoothness of a well-worn road to the beauty and the difficulty of a rugged mountain track.
Apart from his weak health, Pope's boyish days and early manhood were singularly fortunate. He was tenderly nurtured, and repaid his parents' love with the warmest affection; he never suffered want, and had it not been for a painfully irritable tem. perament, and the overweening desire for fame that led him into crooked paths, his life might have been as happy as it was successful. He was yet in his teens when he discovered his vocation. Literature in the earlier years of the eighteenth century was a more prosperous calling than at a later period, when the scholar had to endure “toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail.” Cut off from public life by his creed as well as by physical infirmities, it was Pope's sole ambition to be a poet and man of letters, and no one ever pursued his aim with more persistent determination. The genius of the precocious youth was soon recognized. “ Knowing Walsh,” the best critic in the nation according to Dryden, gave him advice and praise ; Sir William Trumbull, formerly Secretary of State, who lived in Pope's neighbourhood, became, so far as youth and age can live together, a warm friend and companion, and Wycherley, the famous and dissolute Restoration dramatist, now an old man, was another and less trustworthy associate. This connection however was not of very long duration, and was serered when Pope was twenty-two. Wycherley asked Pope to correct his poems, and, if we may believe the poet's story, quarrelled with him in consequence, but in this instance as in many other cases, the version of facts given in Pope's correspondence may be in large measure delusive. It is quite possible that Wycherley
resented the young poet’s unsparing correction of his contemptible verses, but we neither know the amount of provocation given by Pope, nor the spirit in which it was received by Wycherley. All we can say is, that there was a quarrel, the first literary quarrel of many with which Pope is to be credited.
According to his own account he began his poetical career at sixteen with the composition of the “ Pastorals.” It is certain that one of them was in existence when he was eighteen, and according to Tonson the publisher, it was “ generally approved of by the best judges in poetry," but the “Pastorals” were not published until May, 1709, when Pope was two and twenty. It is difficult for the modern student of poetry to understand the appreciation once awarded to these frigid and artificial productions. They are, as Mr. Leslie Stephen truly says, “mere school. boy exercises,” and “represent nothing more than so many experiments in versification," but they were not so regarded in Pope's day, and won the praise of men whose approbatiou was worth having. “It is no flattery at all to say," Walsh wrote to Wycherley, “that Virgil had written nothing so good at his age.” The “Pastorals” are chiefly remarkable for the smoothness of versification which is Pope's metrical characteristic. In the first decade of the eighteenth cen. tury, flowing lines like these may well have been read with admiration :
“No more the mounting larks, while Daphne sings,
With the “ Pastorals” Pope started on the road to fame, and so rapid was his progress, that in five or six years he was universally regarded as the greatest of living poets. Addison was then at the height of his reputation. His “ Cato" appeared upon the stage in 1713, and won a triumphant reception, due more to politics than to poetry. “The Whigs applauded every line in which liberty was mentioned, as a satire on the Tories, and the Tories echoed every clap to show that the satire was unfelt." ? Before this date, however, Addison had discovered where his true genius lay, and one of the sweetest of English humourists had charmed every lover of fine literature by his exquisite papers in the “Tatler" and “Spectator.” In 1711 Pope published his “ Essay on Criticism,” which was probably written two years earlier, and Addison, whose word was law among the wits of the town, praised the poem in the “Spectator.” “There are an hundred faults in this thing," said Goldsmith of his immortal “Vicar of Wakefield,” and the words may be applied with greater truth to Pope's “Essay," but the faults will not obscure the merit of this remarkable piece. A severe judgment has indeed been passed upon the poem by more than one modern critic, and not wholly without justice. Pope's phraseology is often slovenly, and some passages defy grammatical construction. Com. monplace lines too are frequent, and there is not even a couplet that rises out of rhetoric into poetry, but the fact remains that the writer's con. summate skill in expressing whateverybody knows has given a lasting life to the epigrams in this poem. Indeed, there is no poet in the language,