« ZurückWeiter »
its appearance, intitled, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Alexander Pope, Esq., with critical observations, by William Ayre, Esq., in 2 vols. octavo. This work was published for the author in 1745, the year after the death of Pope, and is inscribed to his surviving friends, Lords Bolingbroke, Burlington, Marchmont, and Bathurst. Of the author very little is known; yet it is probable that he was acquainted with Pope; as in the poem of Gay commemorating Pope's supposed return from Greece, on the finishing his translation of the Iliad, we find amongst his friends who come to welcome him, the name of Ayrs. The work itself displays no great share either of talent or of industry, being chiefly made up of extracts from Pope, and various other writers, many of whom have little or no connexion with him, and of translations by the author, from the Italian poets, with whom he appears to have had some acquaintance. There are however some anecdotes related, and some observations occasionally introduced, which are deserving of attention; and as it exhibits in general a candid and impartial spirit, it will be occasionally referred to in the ensuing narrative.
In the same year a pamphlet appeared, intitled, Remarks on 'Squire Ayre's Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Pope, in a letter to Mr. Edmund Curll, bookseller, with authentic Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the said E. C. Printed for M. Cooper, Paternoster-Row, 1745, octavo : the writer of which subscribes his initials at the close, J. H. The purpose of these remarks is to show, that there is no such person as William Ayre, Esq., and that the Memoirs were really written by Curll, who had assumed the
name of Ayre on this occasion, as he had before that of Egerton, in his Memoirs of Mrs. Oldfield. It is not easy to discover, nor is it worth while to inquire further as to the object of this writer; who, whilst he attacks Curll, inserts a copy of scurrilous verses on Pope, and whilst he criticises the work of Ayre, writes worse, if possible, than Ayre himself.
In the year 1759, a small volume in duodecimo was published, called, The Life of Alexander Pope, Esq., with a view of his writings, and many curious anecdotes of his noble patrons, as well as of his cotemporary wits, friends, and foes, by W. H. Dilworth. This is little more than an abridgment of, or selection from, the volumes of Ayre, and contains not a single incident or remark which throws any additional light on the subject.
These feeble attempts to give to the public the circumstances attending the life of Pope, were followed by a more decisive effort. The first general collection of the writings of Pope was published in 1751, by Dr. Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, who in his preface to the first edition in a passage omitted in the subsequent ones) thus announces his intention of giving a life of Pope. “The author's life deserves a just volume, and the editor intends to give it. For to have been one of the first poets in the world is but his second praise. He was in a higher class; he was one of the noblest works of God; he was an honest man; a man who alone possessed more real virtue, than, in very corrupt times needing a satirist like him, will sometimes fall to the share of multitudes. In this history of his life will be contained a large account of his writings, a critique on the nature, force, and extent of his genius, exemplified from these writings, and a vindication of his moral character, exemplified by his more distinguished virtues; his filial piety, his disinterested friendship, his reverence for the constitution of his country, his love and admiration of virtue, and (what was the necessary effect) his hatred and contempt of vice, his extensive charity to the indigent, his warm benevolence to mankind, his supreme veneration of the Deity, and above all, his sincere belief in revelation. Nor shall his faults be concealed; it is not for the interest of his virtues that they should; nor indeed could they be concealed if we were so minded; for they shine through his virtues, no man being more a dupe to the specious appearances of virtue in others. In a word, I mean not to be his panegyrist but his historian ; and may I, when envy and calumny take the same advantage of my absence (for while I live I will freely trust it to my life to confute them), may I find a friend as careful of my honest fame, as I have been of his !" Whether Warburton had in this prospectus held out more than he found himself able to accomplish, or whether his ecclesiastical and episcopal duties engrossed in his later years the whole of his attention and time, certain it is that these promises were never performed by him, at least not under his own name; but in the year 1769, whilst he was yet living, a Life of Pope was published by Owen Ruffhead, Esq., a gentleman of the Bar, and perhaps more generally known as the editor of The Statutes at Large ; avowedly with the assistance of “ original manuscripts,” communicated to him by Warburton, from which, as
he informs us, his history was “ chiefly compiled.” Of this work, which bears decided marks of the frequent interference and style of Warburton, more than threefourths are occupied with criticisms, extracts, and eulogies of the writings of Pope, as already published. The remainder, containing a very imperfect and desultory account of his life, is accompanied with notes and discussions, in which the name and merits of Dr. Warburton are frequently introduced in the most favourable terms. Upon the whole, this volume, although the most authentic account hitherto published, by no means fulfils the expectations excited, or the promises so ostentatiously held out.
The life of Pope by Dr. Johnson, has been considered as one of the best of that series, which, unfortunately for the memory of our national poets, and the character of our national poetry, he was induced to undertake. Throughout the whole of those lives there appears an assumption of superiority in the biographer over the subjects of his labours, which diminishes the idea of their talents, and leaves an unfavourable impression on their moral character. It could only be from the representations of Johnson, that so amiable a man as Cowper could thus close his remarks on reading the Lives of the British Poets'. “After all, it is a melancholy observation, which it is impossible not to make, after having run through this series of poetical lives, that where there were such shining talents, there should be so little virtue. These luminaries of our country seem to have been kindled into a brighter blaze than others,
See Cowper's Letters, lately published by the Rev. J. Johrson.
only that their spots might be more noticed; so much can nature do for our intellectual part, and so little for our moral. What vanity, what petulance in POPE! how painfully sensible of censure, and yet how restless in provocation! To what mean artifices could ADDISON stoop, in hopes of injuring the reputation of his friend ! SAVAGE, how sordidly vicious! and the more demned for the pains that are taken to palliate his vices! offensive as they appear through a veil, how would they disgust without one. What a sycophant to the public taste was DRYDEN ! sinning against his feelings, lewd in his writings, though chaste in his conversation. I know not but one might search these eight volumes with a candle, as the prophet says, to find a MAN, and not find ONE, unless, perhaps, ARBUTHNOT were he.” Can this have been said in the country of SPENSER, of SHAKSPEARE, of SIDNEY, and of MILTON ? of DONNE, of CORBET, of HALL, of MARVEL, and of COWLEY? of ROSCOMMON, of GARTH, of CONGREVE, of PARNELLE, of Rowe, and of GAY? of THOMSON, of LYTTELTON, and of Young? of SHENSTONE, of AKENSIDE, of COLLINS, of GOLDSMITH, of Mason, and of GRAY?
• Unspotted names ! and memorable long,
The lustre of which, as well as of many others that might be adduced, can never be obscured, either by the most morbid malignity, or by the darkest fanaticism. Of the unfavourable and degrading tendency of the biographical writings of Johnson, his Life of Pope exhibits too many instances. Brief yet decisive, superficial yet sententious, he seems neither to know,