Abbildungen der Seite




This poem has been pronounced by Johnson (an egregious instance of the predominance of genius, the dazzling splendor of imagery, and the seductive powers of eloquence.' The verdict of the great master of criticism has never been questioned; but a long and active controversy was soon raised on its principles : it was charged with fatalism, and with borrowing its fatalism from the ostentatious infidelity of Bolingbroke. The charge was first brought by Crousaz, a Swiss professor of logic,-a man of learning and sincerity, but whose learning qualified him but little for a commentator on the imaginations of a great poet, and whose sincerity was too apt to take alarm at the possibilities of evil. He was answered by Warburton, a man of daring but irregular mind, who unluckily adopted the subject more with the zeal of an advocate than the dignity of a judge; wasted the force, by the indiscriminate ardor, of his defence; and finally achieved no other triumph than that of covering Pope with rash panegyric, and overwhelming the subject in metaphysical confusion.

The controversy, at all times idle, is now obsolete; and the whole question may be disposed of in a few words. To examine the course of Providence, to discover wisdom in the seeming errors of the system of things, order in its irregu

Lives of the Poets.

larities, and beauty in its deformities, has been one of the oldest, as it is one of the noblest, exercises of the human mind. Pope adopted the inquiry as offering a large scope for his peculiar powers; a new and vigorous exercise for that keenness of thought which was the natural turn of his capacity; an employ for that command of images, intensity of phrase, and richness of versification, in which he was without a rival. The conduct of the subject thus chosen belonged less to the man than to his time. A century before, while the splendors of the Elizabethan age had not yet sunk below the horizon, and the tempest which was yet to cover England with revolution, was but seen glittering in the shapes and lustres of national freedom and renown on the opposite quarter, with Milton, like a star, leading it on; it might have been more solemn, pathetic, and magnificent: a century after, it might have been more refined, more cautious in its conceptions of life, and more explicit in its reverence for Christianity.

But in the age of Pope, France, always a fatal model for England, exerted a singular influence over the national mind: French infidelity was adopted as essential to French accomplishment; and every aspirant for the honors of fashionable life began his career by a profession of contempt for all that gives dignity to the character of man. Pope lived in the atmosphere of courts and cabinets; and his chief friend, the object of his constant praise, and perhaps of his genuine admiration, was Bolingbroke : the opinions of this fickle and brilliant profligate scorned concealment; and Pope's homage for his genius was certainly never violated by an assault on his irreligion : yet that the poet was not the mere versifier of the fantastic theories of the philosopher has been amply proved. It is settled, by the evidence of facts, that a great portion of the Essay on Man was written before Bolingbroke had begun the subject; that Bolingbroke openly asserted the originality of the Essay; and that both Pope and Bolingbroke respectively declared the independence of their works on each other. Warburton draws the obvious distinction :- The Essay is a real vindication of Providence against libertines and atheists, who quarrel with the present distribution of things, and deny a future state: to those the poet answers, that whatever is, is right;' and assigns as a reason, that we see only a part, and not the whole. On the other hand, Bolingbroke's Essays are a pretended vindication of Providence against an imaginary confederacy between divines and atheists, as both using a common principle, the irregularities of God's moral government here; the one adopting it to establish a future state, the other to discredit the being of a God. Bolingbroke, to oppose both conclusions, asserts that whatever is, is right,' because our moral world is an intire system of itself.'

1 Roscoe.

The truth appears to be, that the purpose of Pope was limited to constructing a fine poem on a fine subject. To speak the language of religion too exclusively would have startled the high-born tastes of his day; to speak the mere language of French philosophy would have been repugnant to his own better feelings. He did neither : he might justly feel that no man is to be taught either religion or infidelity by a poem ; and the author of the Essay on Man accomplished all that he could have rationally hoped for, when he produced a work which added a new wreath to his honors ; delighting the scholar by its elegance, without offending the Christian by its scepticism.

But if a writer's own language is to be taken as a test of his intentions, Pope must be unequivocally discharged of the unpardonable crime of attempting to propagate infidelity. He received Warburton's defence, less with willing acquiescence than with eager gratitude: he declared it a full solution of all such doubts and unfavorable constructions as could possibly arise in the perusal of his work. You have,' said he, made my system as clear as I ought to have done, and could not : it is indeed the same system as mine, but illustrated with a ray of your own; as they say our natural body is the same still when it is glorified.

The object of the Essay is, to vindicate Providence, by proving that the moral and physical evils of nature combine in the general good; that the apparent defects have their share in sustaining the general perfection; that the inequalities, casualties, and difficulties of the parts disappear to the spectator of the whole; and that the system, as such, bears the stamp of unrivalled wisdom and unwearied mercy. Its chief authorities are the Theodicée of Leibnitz, King's Treatise on the Origin of Evil, and the Moralists of Shaftesbury.

Yet the theory thus implicitly embraced and glowingly illustrated is so overstrained, that it had already thrown Leibnitz, the first philosophic name of his day, into ridicule. That the world contains evils which no subtlety of reasoning can argue into goods, and irregularities which no submissiveness of belief can imagine into order, is so obvious to all understandings, as to be a truism. But the problem which baffles philosophy is solved by Scripture: the history of the Fall alone accounts for the vast infusion of actual evil in the constitution of man and nature: the history of the redemption alone accounts for that perpetual and wonder-working care, by which the course of evil is insensibly controlled into good; suffering rendered a source of moral strength; the violence of human passions transmuted into the general security; and the criminal and the tempest made equally instrumental to the beneficence of Heaven. The optimist commits

the old error of the Stoic, in denying the possible existence of evil : the Christian, with a clearer argument, admitting the evidence of the senses, admits the existence of evil; but shows its power restrained, and its results purified by the resistless interposition of the King and Father of all.

The design of the Essay was contemplated so early as 1725: but Pope, meditating long and revising carefully, kept it by him for nearly the poetical time advised by Horace; and the first epistle was not given to the public until seven years after. In 1732 it appeared, but without the writer's name: the applause with which this fragment was received took off all the alarm which the author might have felt at his new experiment in the marriage of metaphysics with “immortal verse.' The second epistle followed in the same year: the fourth was published in 1734, with the author's name.

Fear of the hostility provoked by the Dunciad, the desire of ascertaining the public sentiments on a new subject, the stimulus given to public curiosity by a well-sustained concealment, or even the secret pleasure of hearing praise from the lips of enemies, were assigned among the motives for the previous suppression of the name. The poem was attributed to Dr. Young, lord Paget, and others. Swift, on the announcement of the authorship, acknowleged that his penetration was deceived. I confess,' says he, 'I never did imagine you were so deep in morals, or that so many and so excellent rules could be produced so advantageously and agreeably in that science from any one head. I confess, in some places I was forced to read twice. I believe I told you before what the duke of D. said to me on that occasion; how a judge here, who knows you, told him, that on the first reading of those Essays, he was much pleased, but found some lines a little dark; on the second, most of them cleared

« ZurückWeiter »