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EPIST LE II.
TO A LADY.
Of the Characters of WOMEN. Nothing so true as what you once let fall, “ Most Women have no Characters at all."
Of the Characters of Women.] There is nothing in Mr. Pope's Works more highly finished, or written with greater spirit, than this Epistle: yet its success was in no proportion to the pains he took in composing it, or the effort of genius displayed in adorning it. Something he chanced to drop in a short advertisement prefixed to it, on its first publication, may perhaps account for the small attention the Public gave to it. He said, that no one Character in it was drawn from the Life. They believed him on his word; and expressed little curiosity about a satire in which there was nothing personal. W.
Ver. 1. Nothing so true] Bolingbroke, a judge of the subject, thought this Epistle the masterpiece of Pope. But the bitterness of the satire is not always concealed in a laugh. The characters are lively, though uncommon. I scarcely remember one of them in our comic writers of the best order. The ridiculous is heightened by many strokes of humour, carried even to the borders of extravagance, as much as the two last lines of Boileau, quoted in the next page. The female foibles have been the subject of perhaps more wit, in every language, than any other topic that can be named. The sixth satire of Juvenal, though detestable for its obscenity, is undoubtedly the most witty of all his sixteen, and is curious for the picture it exhibits of the private lives of the Roman ladies. If this Epistle yields, in any respect, to the tenth satire of Boileau on the same subject, it is in the delicacy and variety of the transitions by which the French writer passes from one
Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
character to another, always connecting each with the foregoing. It was a common saying of Boileau, speaking of La Bruyere, that one of the most difficult parts of composition was the art of transition. That we may see how happily Pope has caught the manner of Boileau, let us survey one of his portraits : it shall be that of his learned lady:
“Qui s'offrira d'abord ? c'est cette Sçavante,
Il faut chez Du Vernay voir la dissection.” None of Pope's female characters excel the Doris of Congreve in delicate touches of raillery and ridicule. :
Ver. 5. How many pictures] The Poet's purpose here is to shew, that the characters of Women are generally inconsistent with themselves: and this he illustrates by so happy a similitude, that we see the folly, described in it, arises from that very principle which gives birth to this inconsistency of character. W.
Ver. 7, 8, 10, &c. Arcadia's Countess, -Pastora by a fountain, Leda with a swan,—Magdalen,Cecilia,–] Attitudes in which several ladies affected to be drawn, and sometimes one lady in them all. — The Poet's politeness and complaisance to the sex are observable in this instance, amongst others, that whereas in the Characters of Men he has sometimes made use of real names, in the Characters of Women always fictitious. P.
Here Fannia, leering on her own good man,
Come then, the colours and the ground prepare !
Notes. But notwithstanding all the Poet's caution and complaisance, this general satire, or rather moral analysis of human nature, as it appears in the two sexes, will be always received very differently by them. The Men bear a general satire most heroically; the Women with the utmost impatience. This is not from any stronger consciousness of guilt, for I believe the sum of Virtue in the female world does (from many accidental causes) far exceed the sum of Virtue in the male ; but from the fear that such representations may hurt the sex in the opinion of the men : whereas the men are not at all apprehensive that their follies or vices would prejudice them in the opinion of the women. W.
Ver. 20. Catch, ere the change, the Cynthia of this minute.] Alluding in the expression to the precept of Fresnoy, ,
- formæ veneres captando fugaces.". W.. “ Like a dove's neck she shifts her transient charms.”
Young, Sat. 5. Ver. 21. Instances of contrarieties, given even from such characters as are most strongly marked, and seemingly therefore most consistent: as, I. In the Affected, Ver. 21, &c.
Ver. 21. Rufa, whose eye] This character of Rufa, and the succeeding ones of Silia, Papillia, Narcissa, and Flavia, are precisely and entirely in the style and manner of the portraits Young
Agrees as ill with Rufa studying Locke,
How soft is Silia! fearful to offend; The frail one's advocate, the weak one's friend. 30 To her, Calista prov'd her conduct nice; And good Simplicius asks of her advice.
NOTES. has given us in his Fifth Satire on Women. The pictures of Young are sketched with a lighter and more sportive pencil ; those of our Author with a firmer hand and a chaster manner. Pope put forth all his strength to excel his witty rival in this the best part of the Universal Passion; and he has succeeded accordingly. Both Pope and Boileau (see his tenth satire) have been censured for their severity on the fair sex. They have been reckoned as bad as Euripides; but surely they have not been quite so naughty as an old comic poet, Eubulus, in a fragment preserved in that most entertaining book, the Excerpta ex Trag. et Comed. of Grotius, 4to. p. 659, who, after mentioning Medæa, Clytemnestra, and Phædra, suddenly stops, and wickedly pretends that his memory fails him in enabling him to mention any one good character among women. The ladies of France revenged themselves on Boileau, by saying he was made incapable of love and marriage, by an accident that befel him in his early youth.
Ver. 23. Agrees as ill] This thought is expressed with great humour in the following stanza, said to mean Q. Caroline :
“ Tho’ Artemesia talks, by fits,
Reads Malbranche, Boyle, and Locke ;
And wear a cleaner smock.”
Sudden, she storms ! she raves! You tip the wink,
Ladies, like variegated Tulips, show;
Narcissa's nature, tolerably mild,
NOTES. Ver. 45. III. Contrarieties in the Cunning and Artful. P.
Ver. 52. As when she touch'd the brink of all we hate.] Her charms consisted in the singular turn of her vivacity ; consequently the stronger she exerted this vivacity, the more forcible was her attraction. But when her vivacity arose to that height in which it was most attractive, it was upon the brink of Excess; the point where the delicacy of sensuality disappears, and all the coarseness of it stands exposed. W.
Ver. 53. IV. In the Whimsical. P. : Ver. 54. would hardly stew a child ;] This hyperbolical ridicule is carried to a great height, but in an image too disgusting.