Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

protect himself. To charge Pope with treachery to his friends, as has sometimes been done, is wholly to misunderstand his character.

Another flaw, one can hardly call it a vice, in Pope's character was his constant practice of considering everything that came in his way as copy. It was this which led him to reclaim his early letters from his friends, to alter, rewrite, and redate them, utterly unconscious of the trouble which he was preparing for his future biographers. The letters, he thought, were good reading but not so good as he could make them, and he set to work to improve them with all an artist's zeal, and without a trace of a historian's care for facts. It was this which led him to embody in his description of a rich fool's splendid house and park certain unmistakable traces of a living nobleman's estate and to start in genuine amazement and regret when the world insisted on identifying the nobleman and the fool. And when Pope had once done a good piece of work, he had all an artist's reluctance to destroy it. He kept bits of verse by him for years and inserted them into appropriate places in his poems. This habit it was that brought about perhaps the gravest charge that has ever been made against Pope, that of accepting £1000 to suppress a satiric portrait of the old Duchess of Marlborough, and yet of publishing it in a revision of a poem that he was engaged on just before his death. The truth seems to be that Pope had drawn this portrait in days when he was at bitter enmity with the Duchess, and after the reconcilement that took place, unwilling to suppress it entirely, had worked it over, and added passages out of keeping with the first design, but pointing to another lady with whom he was now at odds. Pope's behavior, we must admit, was not altogether creditable, but it was that of an artist reluctant to throw away good work, not that of a ruffian who stabs a woman he has taken money to spare.

Finally Pope was throughout his life, and notably in his later years, the victim of an irritable temper and a quick, abusive tongue. His irritability sprang in part, we may believe, from his physical sufferings, even more, however, from the exquisitely sensitive heart which made him feel a coarse insult as others would a blow. And of the coarseness of the insults that were heaped upon Pope no one except the careful student of his life can have any conception. His genius, his morals, his person, his parents, and his religion were overwhelmed in one indiscriminate flood of abuse. Too high spirited to submit tamely to these attacks, too irritable to laugh at them, he struck back, and his weapon was personal satire which cut like a whip and left a brand like a hot iron. And if at times, as in the case of Addison, Pope was mistaken in his object and assaulted one who was in no sense his enemy, the fault lies not so much in his alleged malice as in the unhappy state of warfare in which he lived.

Over against the faults of Pope we may set more than one noble characteristic. The sensitive heart and impulsive temper that led him so often into bitter warfare, made him also most susceptible to kindness and quick to pity suffering. He was essentially of a tender and loving nature, a devoted son, and a loyal friend, unwearied in acts of kindness and generosity. His ruling passion, to use his own phrase, was a devotion to letters, and he determined as early and worked as diligently to make himself a poet as ever Milton did. His wretched body was dominated by a high and eager mind, and he combined in an unparalleled degree the fiery energy of the born poet with the tireless patience of the trained artist.

But perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Pope is his manly independence. In an age when almost without exception his fellow-writers stooped to accept a great man's patronage or sold their talents into the slavery of politics, Pope

stood aloof from patron and from party. He repeatedly declined offers of money that were made him, even when no condition was attached. He refused to change his religion, though he was far from being a devout Catholic, in order to secure a comfortable place. He relied upon his genius alone for his support, and his genius gave him all that he asked, a modest competency. His relations with his rich and powerful friends were marked by the same independent spirit. He never cringed or flattered, but met them on even terms, and raised himself by merit alone from his position as the unknown son of an humble shopkeeper to be the friend and associate of the greatest fortunes and most powerful minds in England. It is not too much to say that the career of a man of letters as we know it to-day, a career at once honorable and independent, takes its rise from the life and work of Alexander Pope.

The long controversies that have raged about Pope's rank as a: poet seem at last to be drawing to a close; and it has become possible to strike a balance between the exaggerated praise of his contemporaries and the reckless depreciation of romantic critics. That he is not a poet of the first order is plain, if for no other reason than that he never produced a work in any of the greatest forms of poetry. The drama, the epic, the lyric, were all outside his range. On the other hand, unless a definition of poetry be framed - and Dr. Johnson has well remarked that “to circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer” — which shall exclude all gnomic and satiric verse, and so debar the claims of Hesiod, Juvenal, and Boileau, it is impossible to deny that Pope is a true poet. Certain qualities of the highest poet Pope no doubt lacked, lofty imagination, intense passion, wide human sympathy. But within the narrow field which he marked out for his own he approaches perfection as nearly as any English poet, and Pope's merit consists not merely in the smoothness of his verse

or the polish of separate epigrams, as is so often stated, but quite as much in the vigor of his conceptions and the unity and careful proportion of each

poem as a whole.

It is not too much to say that The Rape of the Lock is one of the best-planned poems in any language. It is as symmetrical and exquisitely finished as a Grecian temple.

Historically Pope represents the fullest embodiment of that spirit which began to appear in English literature about the middle of the seventeenth century, and which we are accustomed to call the “classical” spirit. In essence this movement was a protest against the irregularity and individual license of earlier poets. Instead of far-fetched wit and fanciful diction, the classical school erected the standards of common sense in conception and directness in expression. And in so doing they restored poetry which had become the diversion of the few to the possession of the many. Pope, for example, is preëminently the poet of his time. He dealt with topics that were of general interest to the society in which he lived; he pictured life as he saw it about him. And this accounts for his prompt and general acceptance by the world of his day.

For the student of English literature Pope's work has a threefold value. It represents the highest achievement of one of the great movements in the developments of English verse. It reflects with unerring accuracy the life and thought of his time

not merely the outward life of beau and belle in the days of Queen Anne, but the ideals of the age in art, philosophy, and politics. And finally it teaches as hardly any other body of English verse can be said to do, the perennial value of conscious and controlling art. Pope's work lives and will live while English poetry is read, not because of its inspiration, imagination, or depth of thought, but by its unity of design, vigor of expression, and perfection of finish — by those qualities, in short, which show the poet as an artist in verse.

CHIEF DATES IN POPE'S LIFE

1688 Born, May 21. 1700 Moves to Binfield. 1709

Pastorals. 1711 Essay on Criticism. 1711-12 Contributes to Spectator.

1712 Rape of the Lock, first form. 1713

Windsor Forest. 1713 Issues proposals for translation of Homer. 1714 Rape of the Lock, second form. 1715 First volume of the Iliad. 1715 Temple of Fame. 1717 Pope's father dies. 1717 Works, including some new poems. 1719 Settles at Twickenham. 1720 Sixth and last volume of the Iliad. 1722 Begins translation of Odyssey. 1725 Edits Shakespeare.

1726 Finishes translation of Odyssey. 1727-8 Miscellanies by Pope and Swift. 1728-9 Dunciad. 1731-2 Moral Essays: Of Taste, Of the Use of Riches. 1733-4 Essay on Man. 1733-8 Satires and Epistles.

1735 Works. 1735 Letters published by Curll. 1741 Works in Prose; vol. II. includes the correspond

ence with Swift. 1742 Fourth book of Dunciad. 1742 Revised Dunciad. 1744 Died, May 30. 1751 First collected edition, published by Warburton,

9 vols.

« ZurückWeiter »