Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

his first draft of The Rape of the Lock, and passed it about in manuscript. Pope says himself that it had its effect in the two families; certainly nothing more is heard of the feud. How Miss Fermor received the poem is a little uncertain. Pope complains in a letter written some months after the poem had appeared in print that “the celebrated lady is offended.” According to Johnson she liked the verses well enough to show them to her friends, and a niece of hers said years afterward that Mr. Pope's praise had made her aunt very troublesome and conceited." It is not improbable that Belinda was both flattered and offended. Delighted with the praise of her beauty she may none the less have felt called upon to play the part of the offended lady when the poem got about and the ribald wits of the day began to read into it double meanings which reflected upon her reputation. To soothe her ruffled feelings Pope dedicated the second edition of the poem to her in a delightful letter in which he thanked her for having permitted the publication of the first edition to forestall an imperfect copy offered to a bookseller, declared that the character of Belinda resembled her in nothing but in eauty, and affirmed that he could never hope that his poem should pass through the world half so uncensured as she had done. It would seem that the modern critics who have undertaken to champion Miss Fermor against what they are pleased to term the revolting behavior of the poet are fighting a needless battle. A pretty girl who would long since have been forgotten sat as an unconscious model to a great poet; he made her the central figure in a brilliant picture and rendered her name immortal. That is the whole story, and when carping critics begin to search the poem for the improprieties of conduct to which they say Pope alluded, one has but to answer in Pope's own words.

If to her share some female errors fall,
Look on her face, and you'll forget 'em all.

Pope's statement in the dedication that he had been forced into publishing the first draft of the poem before his design of enlarging it was half executed is probably to be taken, like many of his statements, with a sufficient grain of salt. Pope had a curious habit of protesting that he was forced into publishing his letters, poems, and other trifles, merely to forestall the appearance of unauthorized editions. It is more likely that it was the undoubted success of The Rape of the Lock in its first form which gave him the idea of working up the sketch into a complete mock

heroic poem.

Examples of such a poem were familiar enough to Pope. Not to go back to the pseudo-Homeric mock epic which relates the battle of the frogs and mice, Vida in Italy and Boileau in France, with both of whom Pope, as the Essay on Criticism shows, was well acquainted, had done work of this kind. Vida's description of the game of chess in his Scacchia Ludus certainly gave him the model for the game of ombre in the third canto of The Rape of the Lock; Boileau's Lutrin probably suggested to him the idea of using the mock-heroic for the purposes of satire.

Now it was a dogma of the critical creed of the day, which Pope devoutly accepted, that every epic must have a well-recognized "machinery.” Machinery, as he kindly explained to Miss Fermor, was a "term invented by the critics to signify that part which the deities, angels, or demons are made to act in a poem,” in short for the whole supernatural element. Such machinery was quite wanting in the first draft of the Rape; it must be supplied if the poem was to be a true epic, even of the comic kind. And the machinery must be of a nature which would lend itself to the light satiric tone of the poem. What was it to be? The employment of what we may call Christian machinery, the angels and devils of Tasso and Milton, was, of course, out of the question. The employment of the classic machinery was almost as impossible. It would have been hard for such an admirer of the classics as Pope to have taken the deities of Olympus otherwise than seriously. And even if he had been able to treat them humorously, the humor would have been a form of burlesque quite at variance with what he had set out to accomplish. For Pope's purpose, springing naturally from the occasion which set him to writing the Rape, was not to burlesque what was naturally lofty by exhibiting it in a degraded light, but to show the true littleness of the trivial by treating it in a grandiose and mock-heroic fashion, to make the quarrel over the stolen lock ridiculous by raising it to the plane of the epic contest before the walls of Troy.

In his perplexity a happy thought, little less in fact than an inspiration of genius, came to Pope. He had been reading a book by a clever French abbé treating in a satiric fashion of the doctrines of the so-called Rosicrucians, in particular of their ideas of elemental spirits and the influence of these spirits upon human affairs. Here was the machinery he was looking for made to his hand. There would be no burlesque in introducing the Rosicrucian sylphs and gnomes into a mock-heroic poem, for few people, certainly not the author of the Comte de Gabalis, took them seriously. Yet the widespread popularity of this book, to say nothing of

the existence of certain Rosicrucian societies, had rendered their names familiar to the society for which Pope wrote. He had but to weave them into the action of his poem, and the brilliant little sketch of society was transformed into a true mock-epic.

The manner in which this interweaving was accomplished is one of the most satisfactory evidences of Pope's artistic genius. He was proud of it himself. “The making the machinery, and what was published before, hit so well together, is,” he told Spencer, “I think, one of the greatest proofs of judgment of anything I ever did.” And he might well be proud. Macaulay, in a well-known passage, has pointed out how seldom in the history of literature such a recasting of a poem has been successfully accomplished. But Pope's revision of The Rape of the Lock was so successful that the original form was practically done away with. No one reads it now but professed students of the literature of Queen Anne's time. And so artfully has the new matter been woven into the old that, if the recasting of The Rape of the Lock were not a commonplace even in school histories of English literature, not one reader in a hundred would suspect that the original sketch had been revised and enlarged to more than twice its length. It would be an interesting task for the student to compare the two forms printed in this edition, to note exactly what has been added, and the reasons for its addition, and to mark how Pope has smoothed the junctures and blended the old and the new. Nothing that he could do would admit him more intimately to the secrets of Pope's mastery of his art.

A word must be said in closing as to the merits of The Rape of the Lock and its position in English literature. In the first place it is an inimitable picture of one phase, at least, of the life of the time, of the gay, witty, heartless society of Queen Anne's day. Slowly recovering from the licentious excesses of the Restoration, society at this time was perhaps unmoral rather than immoral. It was quite without ideals, unless indeed the conventions of “good form ” may be dignified by that name. It lacked the brilliant enthusiasm of Elizabethan times as well as the religious earnestness of the Puritans and the devotion to patriotic and social ideals which marked a later age. Nothing, perhaps, is more characteristic of the age than its attitude toward women. It affected indeed a tone of high-flown adoration which thinly veiled a cynical contempt. It styled woman a goddess and really regarded her as little better than a doll. The passion of love had fallen from the high estate it once possessed and become the mere relaxation of the idle moments of a man of fashion.

In the comedies of Congreve, for example, a lover even if honestly in love thinks it as incumbent upon him to make light of his passion before his friends as to exaggerate it in all the forms of affected compliment before his mistress.

In The Rape of the Lock Pope has caught and fixed forever the atmosphere of this age. It is not the mere outward form and circumstance, the manners and customs, the patching, powdering, ogling, gambling, of the day that he has reproduced, though his account of these would alone suffice to secure the poem immortality as a contribution to the history of society. The essential spirit of the age breathes from every line. No great English poem is at once so brilliant and so empty, so artistic, and yet so devoid of the ideals on which all high art rests. It is incorrect, I think, to consider Pope in The Rape of the Lock as the satirist of his age. He was indeed clever enough to perceive its follies, and witty enough to make sport of them, but it is much to be doubted whether he was wise enough at this time to raise his eyes to anything better. In the social satires of Pope's great admirer, Byron, we are at no loss to perceive the ideal of personal liberty which the poet opposes to the conventions he tears to shreds. Is it possible to discover in The Rape of the Lock any substitute for Belinda's fancies and the Baron's freaks? The speech of Clarissa which Pope inserted as an afterthought to point the moral of the poem recommends Belinda to trust to merit rather than to charms. But “merit” is explicitly identified with good humor, a very amiable quality, but hardly of the highest rank among the moral virtues. And the avowed end and purpose of “merit" is merely to preserve what beauty gains, the flattering attentions of the other sex, — surely the lowest ideal ever set before womankind. The truth is, I think, that The Rape of the Lock represents Pope's attitude toward the social life of his time in the period of his brilliant youth. He was at once dazzled, amused, and delighted by the gay world in which he found himself. The apples of pleasure had not yet turned to ashes on his lips, and it is the poet's sympathy with the world he paints which gives to the poem the air, most characteristic of the age itself, of easy, idle, unthinking gayety. We would not have it otherwise. There are sermons and satires in abundance in English literature, but there is only one Rape of the Lock.

The form of the poem is in perfect correspondence with its spirit. There is an immense advance over the Essay on Criticism in ease, polish, and balance of matter and manner. And it is not merely in matters of detail that the supremacy of the latter poem is apparent. The Rape of

the Lock is remarkable among all Pope's longer poems as the one complete and perfect whole. It is no mosaic of brilliant epigrams, but an organic creation. It is impossible to detach any one of its witty paragraphs and read it with the same pleasure it arouses when read in its proper connection. Thalestris' call to arms and Clarissa's moral reproof are integral parts of the poem. And as a result, perhaps, of its essential unity The Rape of the Lock bears witness to the presence of a power in Pope that we should hardly have suspected from his other works, the power of dramatic characterization. Elsewhere he has shown himself a master of brilliant portraiture, but Belinda, the Baron, and Thalestris are something more than portraits. They are living eople, acting and speaking with admirable consistency. Even the little sketch of Sir Plume is instinct with life.

Finally The Rape of the Lock, in its limitations and defects, no less than in its excellencies, represents a whole period of English poetry, the period which reaches with but few exceptions from Dryden to Wordsworth. The creed which dominated poetic composition during this period is discussed in the introduction to the Essay on Criticism (see p. 103) and is admirably illustrated in that poem itself. Its repression of individuality, its insistence upon the necessity of following in the footsteps of the classic poets, and of checking the outbursts of imagination by the rules of common sense, simply incapacitated the poets of the period from producing works of the highest order. And its insistence upon man as he appeared in the conventional, urban society of the day as the one true theme of poetry, its belief that the end of poetry was to instruct and improve either by positive teaching or by negative satire, still further limited its field. One must remember in attempting an estimate of The Rape of the Lock that it was composed with an undoubting acceptance of this creed and within all these narrowing limitations. And when this is borne in mind, it is hardly too much to say that the poem attains the highest point possible. In its treatment of the supernatural it is as original as a poem could be at that day. The brilliancy of its picture of contemporary society could not be heightened by a single stroke. Its satire is swift and keen, but never ill natured. And the personality of Pope himself shines through every line. Johnson advised authors who wished to attain a perfect style to give their days and nights to a study of Addison. With equal justice one might advise students who wish to catch the spirit of our so-called Augustan age, and to realize at once the limitations and possibilities of its poetry, to devote themselves to the study of The Rape of the Lock.

« ZurückWeiter »