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Pope's genius excited so strong an admiration during his life, his intercourse with the world was so extensive, and the hostilities roused by his sarcasms were so keen, that no man of his day became more the subject of public curiosity. To meet this curiosity, immediately on his death a succession of biographies were published, viewing his character, and describing his progress, in the various colors of hatred and friendship, envy and praise. The first attempt of this order was a small pamphlet in 8vo., of about twenty pages, intitled “The Life of Alexander Pope, Esq., with Remarks on his Works; to which is added his Last Will. Printed for Weaver Bickerton, in the TempleExchange passage, in Fleet-street, 1744.'
To this insufficient and temporary performance, succeeded, in 1745, "Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Alexander Pope, Esq., with Critical Observations, by William Ayre, Esq., in 2 vols. 8vo.' Of Ayre little is known, but that, from Gay's mention of him, he seems to have been among the friends of Pope: the volumes are not above medocrity ; their chief contents being extracts from Pope and other writers; and their sole value consisting in a few anecdotes of his private life, and a few remarks on his habits of composition.
This work was speedily the origin of another. in the same year a pamphlet was published with the mitials J. H.: its purport was to declare that Call was the writer of the volumes under the name of Ayre, and that there was no such person as Ayre. The title was, ' Remarks on Squire Ayre's Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Pope, in a Letter to Edmund Curll, bookseller, &c., 1745.' A small volume followed, in 1759, by W. H. Dilworth, merely an abridgment from Ayre,
At length, Warburton, to whom the poet's manuscripts had been bequeathed for the express purpose of giving them with most advantage to the world, seemed inclined to redeem his pledge, and do this last duty to his friend. In the preface to the first edition of Pope's works, published in 1751, he announced, with his usual pomp, a Life, which was to vindicate all his actions, do justice to all his powers, and throw disgrace on all his calumniators. The announcement was withdrawn in the second
edition, and the Life never appeared : but, eighteen years after, a 'Life of Pope' was published by Ruff head, known as the editor of the “Statutes at Large;'—a writer palpably incompetent to the task of a poetic biographer; and awkwardly connecting his own timid and feeble remarks with the headlong, rough, and dictatorial style of Warburton; from whose · Original Papers' Ruffhead acknowleged his work to be chiefly compiled.
The · Life of Pope,' by Johnson, continues one of the ornaments of British biography ; possessing all the habitual energy of the great critic's language, the loftiness of his morality, and the keenness of his discrimination. Yet it is evident that he wrote under a strong, if an unconscious, prejudice. Living among the obscure, while Pope was the idol of high life; indignant at the denial of rewards which seemed spontaneously to solicit the hand of Pope; and associating, for years of hardship, principally with men who hated Pope, at once for his superiority and his success; it was scarcely possible that Johnson should have looked with a kindly glance on this favorite of fortune. He takes evident and undue delight in lowering the poet to the common level of mankind; or in detecting weaknesses of temper, and impeaching his social qualities, where no hope remains of throwing a shade on the eminence of the author. But efforts of this order were too uncongenial to Johnson's generous nature to be long sustained : he sometimes gives way to his feelings, and bursts out into spontaneous praise: he still oftener stops short to rebuke, with manly indignation, the sneerers at Pope's deserved celebrity : at all times he is ready to give a noble tribute to his independence of heart, the sincerity of his friendship, and his personal virtue.
A new edition of Pope's works, in 1797, was prefaced by a Life from the pen of Dr. Warton. This performance pretended to but little beyond compilation; and it is charged with having indolently performed that little. Warton, like Johnson, had come to his task with a predisposition against his author; but Johnson's were the prejudices of others, Warton's his own : his “Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope' had labored to lower the rank of his poetry; his · Life,' with equal deficiency of taste, labored to substantiate the errors of the critic. Neither succeeded ; and Warton has but added another failure to the many examples of inferior faculties attempting to measure the strength of leading minds.
A subsequent biography by Mr. Bowles forcibly animadverted on Pope's morality. The purposes of a critic, so estimable as a poet and a divine, were above all suspicion : yet the topic was painful; it was strenuously protested against, as both unjust to the memory of the great poet, and unsuited to the habits of our more decorous age : by many it was argued as a personal offence, and angrily pronounced to be conceived in a spirit of personal bitterness; by more it was conceived to be unnecessary. The controversy at length exhausted itself, and was wisely suffered to expire.
The last biography to which we shall advert, is from the well-known pen of the author of the
Life of Lorenzo de' Medici. Mr. Roscoe, bringing to his graceful labor all the essential qualities of critical acuteness and practised authorship, has added, perhaps, not the least important of all, zeal for the honor of his subject: under this influence, he has examined every rumor prejudicial to the poet's name, and has unquestionably succeeded to a more striking extent than any of his predecessors, in vindicating his morals and conduct through life : his poetic fame he safely leaves to the impression of his works on the public mind. Consulting Spence for local anecdotes, and the ‘Correspondence' for individual feelings, he has completed a performance which fully intitles him to the gratitude of the living generation ; and which posterity, without much hope to improve, may be well content to admire.
The brief biography attached to the present