Johnson, who despised biographies that begin with a pedigree and end with a funeral, began his remarkable biography of Pope by telling us that “Alexander Pope was born in London May 22, 1688, of parents whose rank or status was never ascertained.”3 The father was a linen merchant who made a modest fortune and then retired to Binfield, near Windsor Forest. Both parents were Roman Catholics, and the year of Pope’s birth was also the year when the dethronement of James II dashed the hopes of Catholics for the abatement of the anti-Catholic laws. The mother was especially gentle to the boy, who was her only child. He inherited from her a tendency to headaches, and from his father such curvature of the spine that he never grew beyond four and a half feet in height.
His early education was entrusted to Catholic priests, who made him proficient in Latin, and less so in Greek; other tutors taught him French and Italian. As his religion closed the universities and the professions to him, he continued his studies at home; and as his crooked figure and frail health handicapped him for active enterprise, his parents indulged his fondness for writing poetry. He tells us that
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.4
At twelve he had a glimpse of Dryden pontificating in Will’s Coffeehouse; the sight stirred in him a wild desire for literary glory. At sixteen he composed some Pastorals which circulated in manuscript and won intoxicating praise; they were accepted for publication in 1709. Then, in 1711, in all the ripe wisdom of his twenty-three years, he astonished the wits of London with an Essay on Criticism in which—even while warning authors,
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring5
of the Muses—he laid down with magisterial finality the rules of literary art. Here Horace’s Ars poetica and Boileau’s Art poétique were digested into 744 lines of good sense marvelously, often monosyllabically, phrased—
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.6
The youth had a flair for epigram, for compressing reams of wisdom in a line, and rounding each idea with a rhyme. He took his versification from Dryden, but his theory from Boileau. Having leisure to file his verse, he readily accepted the classic counsel to perfect the form, to make the goblet more precious than its wine. Though still professing the Catholic faith, he adopted Boileau’s doctrine that literature should be reason aptly dressed. Nature yes, but nature tamed by man; feeling yes, but chastened by intelligence. And what better guide could there be to such controlled and chiseled art than the practice of the ancient poets and orators, their resolution to be rational, and to make each part of every work an orderly element integrated into a harmonious whole? Here was the classic tradition, coming down through Italy and France, through Petrarch and Corneille, and now conquering England through Alexander Pope, as it seemed to Voltaire to have conquered Shakespeare through Addison’s Cato, and as classic architecture, coming down through Palladio and Serlio, through Perrault and Wren, had overlaid or overridden Gothic fantasies and exaltation with sober pediments and calm colonnades. So was formed the young poet’s concept of the classic mind functioning in an ideal critic:
But where’s the man, who counsel can bestow,
Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbias’d or by favor or by spite;
Not dully prepossessed, nor blindly right;
Though learn’d, well-bred, and though well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold and humanly severe;
Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the merits of a foe?
Blest with a taste exact yet unconfined,
A knowledge both of books and human kind;
Gen’rous converse; a soul exempt from pride;
And love to praise, with reason on his side?7
There were a few such critics ready to hail such verse and measured virtue from a lad of twenty-three; so Addison, who must have felt himself here described, offered the poet, in No. 253 of The Spectator, a precious acclaim soon to be forgotten in wordy wars. Another poet, John Dennis, author of the play Appius and Virginia, thought himself abused in Pope’s uncautious lines,
But Appius reddens at each word you speak,
And stares, tremendous, with a threatening eye,
Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry,8
and countered with Reflections, Critical and Satirical (1711). He picked real flaws in Pope’s thought and diction, and served them up in peppered sauce. He described Pope as an ugly hypocrite shaped like Cupid’s bow or a hunchbacked toad, and congratulated him on not having been born in classic Greece, which would have exposed him at birth for his deformity.9 Pope licked his wounds and bided his time.
He followed up his success by publishing The Rape of the Lock (1712). It was a frank imitation of Boileau’s Le Lutrin (1674), but by general consent it excelled its original. Lord Robert Petre had expressed his enthusiasm for Mrs. Arabella Fermor by cutting off, and running off with, a lock of her lovely hair. A coolness ensued between raper and rapee. A Mr. Caryll suggested to Pope that Arabella’s resentment might soften if the poet would tell the story in humorous verse and present the poem to her. It was so done and it so transpired; Mrs. Fermor forgave the lord, and consented to the publication of the poem. But then Pope, against the advice of Addison, enlarged and cluttered the lay with mock-heroic machinery of participating sylphs, salamanders, nymphs, and gnomes. This “light militia of the lower sky” fell in with the fancies of the time, and the amended Rape proved a success with everyone but Dennis. George Berkeley paused in his campaign against matter to compliment the author on the flexibility of his Muse. All the felicity of Pope’s versification, and his inexhaustible mint of imagery and phrase make the poem sparkle like the gems in “Belinda’s” hair. He describes with feminine learning the cosmetics with which a fairy arms the heroine for the wars of love, and he lists with sarcastic equivalents the vital issues of her day:
Whether the nymph [Belinda-Arabella] shall break Diana’s law [of virginity],
Or some frail china-jar receive a flaw;
Or stain her honor, or her new brocade;
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade;
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball …10
Belinda joins the gossip and gambling of titled company at Hampton Court, where
At every word a reputation dies;11
and the poet marshals his artistry to recount a game of cards. Then, as Belinda bends to drink, the lusty baron snips her curl and steals away (this iambic flux is catching). Furious, she pursues and finds him, and throws a charge of snuff into his face;
Sudden, with starting tears each eye o’erflows,
And the high dome re-echoes to his nose.12
Meanwhile the gnomes, or sylphs, or salamanders themselves rape the lock and draw it, trailing clouds of glory, to the skies, where it becomes a comet outcoruscating Berenice’s hair.
All this delighted the lords and ladies, the clubs and coffeehouses, of London; Pope found himself hailed as the cleverest poet in England; and all other poets became his foes. He added nothing to his fame with wearisome verses describing Windsor Forest (1713); nor did the Whigs, victorious in 1714, forget that in that poem he revealed his Catholic sympathies for the fallen dynasty.13 But he recaptured his audience in 1717 by carving into couplets the fabled letters of Héloïse and Abélard. “Eloïsa,” self-immured in a nunnery, bids the emasculated “Abelard” flaunt the laws of Church and state and come to her arms:
Come, if thou dar’st, all charming as thou art!
Oppose thyself to Heaven, dispute my heart;
Come, with one glance of those deluding eyes
Blot out each bright idea of the skies; …
Snatch me, just mounting, from the bless’d abode;
Assist the friends, and tear me from my God!
Then in another mood she tells him,
No, fly me, far as pole from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!
Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.14
Yet she trusts that in her dying hour he may come to her, not as a lover but as a priest:
In sacred vestments may’st thou stand,
The hallow’d taper trembling in thy hand,
Present the cross before my lifted eye,
Teach me at once, and learn of me, to die.15
Like almost every poet in those days Pope dreamed of writing an epic. He had begun one at the age of twelve. Later, studying Homer, the thought came to him that he might translate the Iliad into those “heroic couplets” that seemed to be almost his natural speech. He asked his friends about the idea; they approved. One of them, Jonathan Swift, introduced him to Har-ley, Bolingbroke, and other heads of government, hoping to get him a sustaining sinecure. Failing in this, he undertook to get subscriptions that would support the new Alexander prancing over Troy. Strategically placed between place seekers and ministry, Swift proclaimed that “the best poet in England was Mr. Pope, a Papist, who had begun a translation of Homer into English verse, for which he must have them all subscribe; for the author shall not begin to print till I have a thousand guineas for him!”16Pope proposed to render the Iliad in six volumes quarto, for six guineas ($180?) the set. Despite this lordly price the subscriptions were so many, and the enthusiasm so great, that Bernard Lintot, bookseller, agreed to pay Pope two hundred pounds for each volume, and to supply him gratuitously with copies for his subscribers. As the 575 subscribers took 654 sets, Pope earned £5,320 ($148,960?) for the Iliad. No author in England had yet received so handsome a sum. The first volume, containing four cantos, appeared in 1715. It encountered unexpected competition from the publication, on the same day, of a translation of Canto I by Thomas Tickell. Addison lauded Tickell’s version, which Pope took to be really Addison’s; he felt the simultaneous publication to be an unfriendly act, and added Addison to his foes.
If scholarship had been the only test, Pope’s translation would have deserved little praise. He had only a modest knowledge of Greek; he had to engage scholastic help; he accomplished most of his task by collating earlier translations and rephrasing them in the iambic-pentameter couplets that were his special forte. Bentley, prince of then living Hellenists, judged the performance well: “A pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.”17 The couplets and the drumbeat of their rhymes, the balanced phrases, clauses, and antitheses, halted the swift and surging style of the Greek hexameters. Nevertheless there was a marching grandeur, and a resource of language, in those marvelously sustained verses that carried them over Bentley’s protests through the eighteenth into the nineteenth century as the favored translation of the Iliad. “The noblest version of poetry that the world has ever seen,” said Johnson;18 no other translation would ever equal it, said Gray.19 So Britain judged until Keats looked into Chapman’s Homer, and Wordsworth called down a plague upon the pompous artificial style that pleased so many in England’s Augustan Age.
Pope’s Iliad was published in 1715–20. Its success brought competing booksellers to his door. One of them begged him to edit Shakespeare’s plays; he foolishly agreed, blind to the chasm that divided him from Shakespeare in mind and art. He toiled impatiently at the uncongenial task; the edition appeared in 1725, and was soon riddled as incompetent by Lewis Theobald, the best Shakespearean scholar of the day. Pope crucified him in The Dunciad.
Meanwhile Lintot persuaded him to translate the Odyssey, offering a hundred pounds for each of five volumes; and subscribers took 819 sets. But now, lacking the stimulus of youth and need, Pope tired of cutting couplets, and delegated half the work to two Cambridge scholars, who soon learned to counterfeit his style. He had forewarned subscribers that he would use aides; but in publishing his Odyssey (1725–26)—far inferior to his Iliad—he credited these assistants with five books of the twenty-four; actually they had translated twelve.20 He paid them £ 770; he himself netted £3,500, rightly feeling that his name had sold the book. The two translations made him financially independent. Now, “thanks to Homer,” he said, he could “live and thrive indebted to no prince or peer alive.”21
In 1718 he bought a villa at Twickenham, with a garden of five acres sloping to the Thames. He designed the garden in “natural” style, avoiding the classical regularity that he practiced in his verse; “a tree,” he said, “is a nobler object than a prince in his coronation robes.”22 From his house he had a tunnel dug under an intervening highway to emerge into the garden; this “grotto” he decorated fancifully with shells, crystals, coral, petrifacts, mirrors, and little obelisks. In that cool retreat he entertained many famous friends—Swift, Gay, Congreve, Bolingbroke, Arbuthnot, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Princess Caroline, and Voltaire. Lady Mary was his neighbor in what they both called “Twitnam”; Bolingbroke lived at Dawley, close by; London was only eleven miles away, by a pleasant boat ride on the Thames; and nearer still were the royal palaces at Richmond, Hampton Court, and Kew.
Dr. John Arbuthnot, whose History of John Bull (1712) had given England a personality and a name, joined Swift, Congreve, Gay, and Pope in the famous Scriblerus Club (1713–15), dedicated to ridiculing every kind of quackery and ineptitude. All their victims were added to the swelling roster of Pope’s foes. With Lady Mary he had a half-real, half-literary romance that ended in bitter enmity. Swift sometimes stayed with him, as when publishing Gulliver (1726); the two exchanged misanthropies, and some letters that revealed the tenderness under their carapaces.23 Pope’s acquaintance with Bolingbroke began about 1713, and developed into a philosophical tutelage. Each paid the other fulsome compliments. “I really think,” said Pope, “that there is something in that great man which looks as if it were placed here by mistake from some higher sphere”; and Bolingbroke, when Pope was dying, said, “I have known him these thirty years, and value myself more on this man’s love”—whereat, we are told, his voice failed.24
There must have been something to love in this poet whom tradition, and sometimes his own pen, have pictured as quarrelsome, deceitful, mean, and vain. We should always remember that he was forgivably embittered by the daily humiliation of his physical disabilities. In early life he had been beautiful of face, and of pleasant temper; and his face always remained attractive, if only by the animation of his eyes. But as he grew up the curvature of his spine became more painfully pronounced. He described himself as “a lively little creature, with long legs and arms; a spider is no ill emblem of him; he has been taken at a distance for a small windmill.”25(We are reminded of the pitiful Scarron.) At table, to be on a level with others, he had to be propped up on a raised seat like a child. He required almost constant attendance. He could not go to bed or get up without help; could not dress or undress himself; had difficulty in keeping himself clean. On rising he could scarce hold himself erect until his servant laced him in a bodice of stiff canvas. His legs were so thin that he wore three pairs of stockings to enlarge their size and keep them warm. He was so sensitive to cold that he wore “a kind of fur doublet” under a shirt of coarse warm linen. He rarely knew the zest of health. Lord Bathurst said of him that he had headaches four days a week, and was sick the other three. It is a marvel that Jonathan Richardson could have painted so presentable a portrait of Pope 26—all alertness and sensitivity; but in the bust by Roubillac 27 we can see the tortured body torturing the mind.
It would be cruel to expect such a man to be even-tempered, complaisant, cheerful, or kind. Like any invalid he became irritable, demanding, and morose; he seldom came closer to laughter than a smile. Deprived of all physical charm, he comforted himself with pride of place and vanity of intellect. Like a weak or wounded animal, and as one of an oppressed minority, he developed cunning, evasion, and subtlety; he soon learned to lie, even to practice dishonesty with his friends. He flattered the aristocracy, but he scorned to write acquisitive dedications. He had the courage to refuse a pension offered him by a government that he despised.
We see some lovable qualities in his private life. Swift called him “the most dutiful son I have ever known or heard of.” 28 His affection for his mother was the purest and most lasting sentiment of his troubled spirit; in her ninety-first year he wrote that her daily company made him insensitive to any lack of other domestic attachments. His sexual morals were better in practice than in speech; his frame was not adapted to fornication, but his tongue and pen could be licentious ad nauseam. 29 Even to the two women with whom he thought he was in love he wrote with a loose freedom that none but a trull would tolerate today. And yet one of these, Martha Blount, developed for the infirm poet a devotion that gossip mistook for a liaison. In 1730 he described her as “a friend … with whom I have spent three or four hours a day these fifteen years.” 30 In his premature old age he became dependent upon her affection, and he bequeathed to her nearly all of his substantial estate.
Always conscious of his bodily defects, he felt with double keenness every word critical of his character or his poetry. It was an age preeminent in the vindictiveness of its literary wars; and Pope returned abuse with abuse sometimes unfit to print. In 1728 he gathered his foes and critics into the corral of his verse, and let loose upon them all the arrows of his wrath in his most powerful and disagreeable work. It was anonymous, but all literate London saw his signature in its style. Treading the rugged path of Dryden’sMacFlecknoe (1682), Pope’s Dunciad hailed the scribes of Grub Street as the leading dunces of the Court of Dullness, where Theobald is king. He mourned the death of Wren and Gay, and the Hiberniating exile of Swift, who was dying “like a poisoned rat in a hole”—i.e., Dublin Cathedral. For the rest he saw nothing about him but a venal and tasteless mediocrity. Theobald, Dennis, Blackmore, Osborne, Curll, Cibber, Oldmixon, Smedley, Arnall received in turn their meed of lashes, taunts, and filth—for the poet, perhaps as an attribute of impotence, had a flair for offal. 31
In a later edition Pope, through the mouth of the poet Savage, told with pleasure how, on the date of first publication, a crowd of authors besieged the bookseller, threatening him with violence if he published the poem; how this made the public more avid for copies; how one edition after another was demanded and consumed; how the victims formed clubs to concert vengeance upon Pope, and destroyed him in effigy. Dennis’ son came with a cudgel to beat Pope, but was diverted by Lord Bathurst; thereafter, for a while, Pope took with him on his walks two pistols and his great Dane. Several victims countered with pamphlets; Pope and his friends started (1730) The Grub Street Journal to continue the war. In 1742 he issued a fourth book of The Dunciad, in which, hungry for new enemies, he attacked the pedagogues and the freethinkers—who boast that
We nobly take the high Priori Road,
And reason downward till we doubt of God;
Make Nature still encroach upon His plan,
And shove Him off as far as e’er we can; …
Or, at one bound o’erleaping all His laws,
Make God man’s image, man the final cause,
Find virtue local, all relation scorn,
See all in self, and but for self be born;
Of nought so certain as our reason still,
Of nought so doubtful as of soul and will. 32
Obviously Pope had been delving into philosophy, and not only with Bolingbroke; Hume’s dissolvent Treatise of Human Nature had appeared in 1739, three years before this Book IV of The Dunciad. There is some evidence that the Viscount had already transmitted to the poet the deism of Shaftesbury sharpened with the wisdom of the world. 33 Enough of satire and trivialities, said Bolingbroke; turn your Muse to divine philosophy. “Lord Bathurst,” reported Joseph Warton, “repeatedly assured me that he had read the whole scheme of the Essay [on Man] in the handwriting of Bolingbroke, and drawn up in a series of propositions which Pope was to versify and illustrate.” 34 Pope seems to have done this, even to using specific phrases of the lordly skeptic, 35 but he added some saving remnants of his Christian creed. So he issued his Essay on Man: Epistle I in February, 1733; Epistles II and III later in that year; Epistle IV in 1734. Soon it was translated into French, and a dozen Gauls hailed it as one of the most brilliant unions of poetry and philosophy ever composed.
Today it is remembered chiefly for lines that everyone knows; let us do Pope the justice to see them in the setting of his art and thought. He begins with an apostrophe to Bolingbroke:
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan; …
Together let us beat this ample field,…
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can,
But vindicate the ways of God to man. 36
Here, of course, is a memory of Leibniz’ Theodicy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. 37 Pope proceeds to warn philosophers against hoping or pretending to understand—“Can a part contain the whole?” Let us be grateful that our reason is limited and our future unknown:
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood. 38
There is a secret pessimism here; hope can survive only through ignorance:
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher, Death, and God adore.
What future bliss He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never Is, but always To be, blest. 39
We cannot see the reason for the apparent injustices of life; we must recognize that nature is not made for man, that God must order all things for all things, not for man alone. Pope describes the “vast Chain of Being” between the lowest creatures through man and angel to God, and he keeps his faith in a divine order, however hidden from our ken:
All Nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right. 40
The first lesson is intellectual humility. Then a magnificent remembrance of Pascal:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great, …
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! 41
Within these human limits let us agree that “self-love, the spring of motion, act[ivate]s the soul,” but also that reason must enter to give order and balance to our passions and save us from vice. For
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace. 42
These passions, though they are all modes of self-love, are parts of the divine design, and may tend to an end good even to our blind vision. So the lust for the flesh continues the race, and mutual interest begot society. Social organization and religious belief are obvious boons, though kings and creeds have stained history with human blood.
For forms of government let fools contest;
Whate’er is best administered is best.
For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right. 43
The fourth epistle of the Essay on Man examines happiness, and labors to equate it with virtue. If the good man suffers misfortunes, and the wicked sometimes prosper, it is because
the Universal Cause
Acts not by partial but by general laws; 44
God ordains the whole, but leaves the parts to the laws of nature and to man’s free will. Some of us mourn the inequality of possessions as a source of unhappiness; but class divisions are necessary to government;
Order is Heaven’s first law; and this confessed,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest. 45
This is not as clear as a day in June, but what else could be said to (or by?) Viscount Bolingbroke? And despite the inequality of natural and acquired gifts, happiness is evenly distributed; the poor man is quite as happy as the king. Nor is the prosperous villain really happy; he hugs his gains but feels the world’s contempt, while the just man, even in injustice, has a soul at peace.
What strikes us first in the Essay on Man is the unrivaled compactness of the style. “I chose verse,” said Pope, “because I found I could express them [ideas] I more shortly this way than in prose.” 46 No one, not Shakespeare himself, equaled Pope in gathering infinite riches—at least considerable meaning—in a little room. Here in 652 couplets are more memorable lines than in any equal area of literature outside the New Testament. Pope knew his limits; he explicitly disclaimed originality of ideas; he proposed to rephrase a deistic and optimistic philosophy in syncopated art, and he succeeded. In this poem he laid aside his Catholic creed at least pro tempore. He kept God as a First Cause only, who exerts no “particular providence” to help the virtuous man from the wiles of the wicked. There are no miracles in this system, no God-given Scriptures, no falling Adam or atoning Christ; a vague hope of heaven, but no word of hell.
Many critics assailed the poem as versified humanism. “The proper study of mankind is man” defined one aspect of humanism, and seemed to scuttle all theology. When the Essay was translated into French it was pounced upon by a Swiss pastor, Jean Crousaz, who argued that Pope had left God off on a siding in a poem supposed to vindicate the ways of God to man. No other than the potent William Warburton came to Pope’s defense against this alien attack; the poem, vouched the future bishop, was a work of impeccable Christian piety. To calm the clergy Pope published in 1738 a lovely hymn, “The Universal Prayer.” The orthodox were not quite satisfied, but the storm died down. On the Continent the Essay was hailed with hyperboles; “in my opinion,” Voltaire judged, “the finest, the most useful, the sublimest didactic poem that has ever been written in any language.” 47
In 1735 Pope prefaced a volume of satires with an “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” defending his life and works, and dispatching further enemies. Here came the famous picture of Addison as “Atticus,” and the murderous exposure of the ambisexual Lord Hervey, who had made the mistake of calling Pope “hard as thy heart, and as thy birth obscure.” 48 Pope transfixed him as “Sporus” in lines that show the poet at his best and worst:
What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass’s milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel,
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt, that stinks and stings …
Whether in florid impotence he speaks,
And as the prompter breathes, the puppet squeaks;
Or, at the ear of Eve, familiar toad,
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad,
In puns, or politics, or tales, or lies,
Or spite, or smut, or rhymes, or blasphemies,
His wit all seesaw, between that and this,
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss,
And he himself one vile antithesis.
Amphibious thing! that acting either part,
The trifling head, or the corrupted heart,
Fop at the toilet, flatterer at the board,
Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord. 49
Pope was proud of his facility in such assassinations—
Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men, not afraid of God, afraid of me. 50
He excused his bitterness on the ground that the age was threatened with the triumph of stupidity, and needed a scorpion to sting it into sense. But in 1743 he concluded that he had lost the battle; in his last revision of The Dunciad he painted a powerful picture—Donne’s forebodings in Miltonic tones—of religion, morals, order, and art in universal darkness and decline. The Goddess of Dullness, enthroned, yawns upon a dying world:
She comes! she comes! The sable throne behold
Of night primeval and of Chaos old!
Before her, fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away. …
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ ethereal plain; …
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after art goes out, and all is night.
See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heaped o’er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic [science] of metaphysic begs defense [against Hume?],
And metaphysic calls for aid on Sense [Locke? ]!
See mystery to mathematics [Newton?] fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares morality expires. …
Lo, thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all. 51
Perhaps he mistook his own decomposition for the collapse of the cosmos. At the age of fifty-five he was already dying of old age. Dropsy made it difficult for him to walk, asthma made it painful for him to breathe. On May 6, 1744, he fell into delirium, from which he emerged at intervals; in one of these he expressed his confidence in life after death. A Catholic friend asked if he should call a priest; Pope answered, “I do not think it essential, but it will be very right, and I thank you for putting me in mind of it.” 52 He died on May 30, “so placidly” (if we may believe Johnson) “that the attendants did not discern the exact time of his expiration.” As a Catholic, he was ineligible for burial in Westminster Abbey; he was interred beside his father and mother in Twickenham.
Was he a gentleman? No; his vituperative hatreds shared in poisoning the literary air of England in the first half of the eighteenth century; his physical sufferings produced acrid acids, and deprived him of the strength that overflows in charity. Was he a genius? Of course: not in thought, which he borrowed, but in form, which he perfected in his genre. Thackeray called him “the greatest literary artist that the world has seen.” 53 In felicity of speech, compression of expression, fertility of phrase, he was the paragon of his time. Even the French accepted him as the greatest poet of his generation; Voltaire looked up to him and imitated him, as in the Discours sur l’homme. For thirty years—longer than any other poet—he was the sovereign of English verse, and for thirty more he was the model of English bards till Wordsworth announced another age.
For us today, hurried with all our leisure, Pope’s couplets, mechanically sliced, or rising and falling “like a seesaw,” 54 possess a virtus dormitiva, periodically arousing us with epigrams. Even the brilliant Essay on Man is poetry only in its feet and rhymes. Its workmanship is too visible; the artist has forgotten Horace’s counsel to hide his art. He forgot, too, Horace’s warning that the poet must himself have feeling before he can convey it; Pope felt, but mostly to scorn and revile. He lacked the sense of beauty for noble actions or feminine grace. His imagination was exhausted in finding correct, incisive, concentrated words for old ideas; it did not reach out to grasp the ideal forms that inspire great poets and philosophers. Only his hatreds gave him wings.
He remains the chief poetic symbol of England’s “Augustan Age”—whose bounds might be defined by his life, 1688–1744. The growing familiarity of the British mind with the classics of Greece and Rome, and with the French drama of the grand Siècle; the influence of aristocracy—of class dominating mass—in speech, manners, polite vocabulary, and gracious ease; the reaction of reason and realism after Elizabethan extravagance and Puritan converse with God; the passage of French norms to England with the Restoration; the new prestige of science and philosophy: all these collaborated to bring the prevalent forms of English poetry under the classic rules of Horace and Boileau. An age of criticism succeeded an age of imagination; whereas in Elizabethan England poetry invaded and colored prose, now in Augustan England prose degraded and discolored poetry. The impress of this “neoclassic” literature on the English language was good and bad: it gave it a new precision, clarity, and elegance; it forfeited the vitality, force, and warmth of Elizabethan speech. The old ebullience and individualism of character and expression yielded to a superimposed order that compelled conformity in life and form in literature. Youth became middle age.
This neoclassical style spoke for only a part of English life; it had no room for rebellion, sentiment, or idealizing love. Even during Pope’s pontificate there were British poets who cried out against artificiality and logic, turned from reason to nature, and found a voice for feeling, wonder, imagination, brooding melancholy and grieving hope. At the peak of England’s classic age the Romantic movement began.