« AnteriorContinuar »
in its most gorgeous and attractive hues, and everywhere the emptiness is visible beneath the outward splendour. The beauty of Belinda, the details of her toilet, her troops of admirers, are all set forth with unrivalled grace and fascination, and all bear the impress of vanity and vexation. Nothing can exceed the art with which the satire is blended with the pomp, mocking without disturbing the unsubstantial gewgaw. The double vein is kept up with sustained skill in the picture of the outward charms and the inward frivolity of women.
• With varying vanities from every part
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart'; this is the tone throughout. Their hearts are toyshops. They reverse the relative importance of things; the little with them is great, and the great little.' (Elwin.) This feeling towards women is not the poet's idiosyncrasy ; here he is but the representative of his age. The degradation of woman in England does not date from the Restoration. It was complete before the Commonwealth, and is aptly symbolised in the behaviour of James I, who compelled all ladies to kneel on being presented to him. But the combination of the forms of chivalrous devotion with the reality of cynical contempt, was the peculiar tone of manners which came in with the court of Charles II, and gradually spread downwards through the lower social strata. The poem in our literature which gives the most finished representation of this sentiment is The Rape of the Lock.
It was to the translation of Homer, undertaken as a commercial speculation, that Pope owed, more than to anything else he produced, the great reputation he attained in his lifetime. The verdict of later times has reversed the decision of an age little versed in Greek, and whose artificial manners were alien from the primitive simplicity and savagery of Homer. Pope translated from the Latin version, from the French of Dacier, from the English of Chapman. But it was less his ignorance of Greek, than his theory of poetical expression, which led him astray. His solicitude is entirely spent upon the words he is using, and not upon the thing he is describing. He introduced ornaments which are not only foreign, but false and out of keeping. He reproduced neither the naiveté nor the dignity of the original. Pope's moonlight scene provoked Wordsworth's remark that 'the eye of the poet had never been steadily fixed upon its object, and that
shows to what a low state knowledge of the most obvious and important phenomena had sunk' Yet no selection from Pope would be complete which did not offer a specimen of the Homer. We give the moonlight scene from the 8th Book, partly for the sake of comparison with Chapman's rendering of the same lines, (see above, vol. i. p. 519), and also because it is a striking example of both the faults and excellences of the translation. We have in these few lines more than average infidelity to the original ; we have unhomeric embroidery, such as 'refulgent lamp of night'; but we have at the same time twenty-four lines (eleven in the Greek) of finished versification, the rapid, facile, and melodious flow of which, concentrating all the felicities of Pope's higher style, has never been surpassed in English poetry.
The translation of Homer occupied Pope during the ten best years of his life. The Odyssey was finished in 1725, and Pope turned to very different work, the composition of The Dunciad. The Dunciad is a personal satire, or lampoon, directed against the small authors of the day, who are bespattered with much mud and little wit, without any pretence of disguise, and under their own
The Dunciad has been the parent of a numerous progeny, The Scribleriad, The Baviad, The Pursuits of Literature, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, all of which have had much vogue in their day, and lost their savour when the generation they libelled has passed away. It must not be concealed that critics of reputation have spoken with approbation of this amalgam of dirt, ribaldry and petty spite. De Quincey has allowed himself to say that The Dunciad is Pope's 'greatest work. Thackeray, who had no toleration for similar offences when Swift was the offender, thought that the conclusion of The Dunciad shows the author to be the equal of all poets of all times'; and Conington considers the poem as 'unquestionably a very great satire.' It certainly shows Pope's peculiar skill as an artist in its perfection. He has now (1727) attained a complete mastery over the couplet, and can compel it to do the work he requires of it. To the literary historian the value of The Dunciad is great, as a chapter of contemporary life, a record of small celebrities, otherwise lost to fame. But of its absolute merit as a poem, a just taste must agree with Taine (Litt. Angl. t. 4), that 'seldom has so much talent been expended to produce so much ennui.' The motive of the satire is not the desire of the moral reformer to improve mankind, but the rancour and malevolence of literary jealousy. And against whom is this petty irritation felt? Against feeble journalists, brutal pamphleteers, starving rhymesters, a crew of hackney authors, bohemians of ink and paper below literature. To sting and wound these unfortunates gave Pope pleasure as he sate, meditating stabs, in his elegant villa, the resort of the rich and the noble ! By attacking these, he lowers himself to their level. The first poet of the age of the century-chooses to hand himself down to posterity as bandying scurrilities with the meanest scribblers, hired defamers, the banditti of the printing-office, ready at the shortest notice to deliver half a crown's worth of slander. To be even with these miserable out. casts Pope condescended to employ one of the worst of them, Savage, as a spy and informer to bring him gossip from their haunts. When every other taunt fails him Pope can gibbet the poverty of these unsuccessful authors as a crime, and turn them into ridicule for wanting a dinner. The superfluous vehemence with which he rails against these insignificant enemies betrays the hollowness of the pretence that the satire was aimed not at in. dividuals, but at the spirit of dullness or stupid conservatism. Of Pope's ignorance of everything, except society and the art of versifying, The Dunciad offers one signal instance. The first scholar in Europe, one possessing a genius for criticism to which philologians of all countries still pay admiring homage, was an Englishman, and a contemporary of Pope. Pope looked on Richard Bentley but knew him not. The lines (included in our selection) in which the great critic is quizzed, are a typical specimen of the fatal flaw in Pope's writings, viz. that the workmanship is not supported by the matter ; a palpable falsehood is enshrined in immortal lines.
The composition of The Dunciad had revealed to Pope where his true strength lay, in blending personalities with moral reflection. During the next decade, 1730-40, he confined himself to the one style of composition upon which his reputation as an English poet must rest, and in which he has never had a rival. The pieces which appear in his collected works under the various titles of Moral Essays, Essay on Man, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Imitations of Horace, Epilogue to the Satires, were brought out singly at various times during these ten years.
The most celebrated of these poems are the four epistles addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and known by the collective title of the Essay on Man. It is a didactic or argumentative poem, not on Man, as the title bears, but a théodicée or vindi. cation of the ways of Providence. The view attempted to be presented is that of Leibnitzian optimism ; the end of the universe is the general good of the whole ; it was impossible to realise this without admitting partial evil. Man is not the end of creation, but only one in a graduated scale of beings; it is his pride which leads him to complain when he finds that everything has not been ordered for his benefit. The reasoning of the Essay on Man is feeble, the philosophy either trite or inconsistent, or obscure. But the less the intrinsic value of the argument, the more is our admiration excited by the literary skill and brilliant execution displayed in the management. The particular illustrations, the episodes and side-lights, always sparkle with wit, and are sometimes warm with feeling, when the main thesis is jejune and frigid. "Whilst Pope frequently wastes his skill in gilding refuse, he is really most sensitive to the noblest sentiments of his contemporaries, and when he has good materials to work upon, his verse glows with unusual fervour.' (Leslie Stephen.) Ruskin points to the couplet
Never elated, while one man's oppressed ;
Never dejected whilst another 's blessed' as 'the most complete, concise, and lofty expression of moral temper existing in English words.' 'If the Essay on Man were shivered into fragments, it would not lose its value ; for it is precisely its details which constitute its moral as well as literary beauties.' (A. W. Ward.)
The Moral Essays, from which our next specimen is taken, consist of five epistles composed at different times, and placed in the works under a common title. Of these the same may be said as of the Essay on Man, that the ethical doctrine is not worthy of the exquisite workmanship. Our extract is from the first epistle, and includes the celebrated character of Philip Lord Wharton, a piece of portraiture which ranks with those of Addison, the Duchess of Marlborough, Lord Hervey, and the death-bed of Villiers Duke of Buckingham. They are masterpieces of English versification, medals cut with such sharp outlines and such vigour of hand that they have lost none of their freshness by lapse of time. When the poet engraves one of these figures, his compendious imagery, the surprises of his juxtaposition, the sustained and multiplied antitheses, the terse texture of each line, the incessant shocks from the play of his eloquence directed and concentrated continuaily upon one point, from these things the Inemory receives an impression which it never loses.' (Taine.)
Pope's peculiar powers found their most perfect development in the pieces, which in the collected works are entitled Satires and Epistles of Horace imitated. Casually suggested by Bolingbroke in the course of conversation, and calling themselves an imitation, these 'satires and epistles' are the most original of Pope's writings, and the most natural and spontaneous outcome of his genius. These pieces, nine in number, including a Prologue, and two Epilogues, form a total of some 2000 lines, and were the product of the four years 1735-8, and therefore of Pope's meridian period between his fortieth and fiftieth year. The ferocity of Pope's invective and the malice of his antipathies are here subdued, and though the coarser horse-laugh of the old time breaks out every now and then, yet on the whole the finer play of sarcasm and witty inuendo has taken the place of hard names and slander.
The Epistle 10 Dr. Arbuthnot, or Prologue to the Satires may be singled out as Pope's most characteristic piece. We give it entire in our selections. It contains the two famous portraits, that of Lord Hervey (Sporus) and that of Addison (Atticus). The libel, for such it is, on Lord Hervey cannot be excused even by the rancour of political party. This accomplished nobleman was Vice-Chamberlain in the court of George II, a position easy enough to a mere fribble, but which was sure to mark out a man of parts and wit such as Lord Hervey, as the object of hatred to the tory and jacobite opposition. Even as art, Pope must be considered in this sketch to have failed from overcharging his canvas with odious and disgusting images. Yet 'it is impossible not to admire, however we may condemn, the art by which acknowledged wit, beauty and gentle manners, the Queen's favour, and even a valetudinary diet are travestied into the most odious defects and offences.' (Croker.) The satire on Addison, in a more refined style, but not less unjust in fact, had been written twenty years before, during Addison's lifetime. Pope regarded the piece with the affection with which an author regards the product of much time and labour; and he had meditated each stab in this finished lampoon for years. Having printed it separately in 1727, he now finally adapted it into this Prologue to the Satires, only suppressing the real name, but not concealing it under the thin disguise of 'Atticus. The art of these malignant lines is much greater than that of those on Lord Hervey. Pope here not only avoids any images which were in themselves offensive, but allows his victim many virtues and accomplishments.