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CHAPTER I.

ALEXANDER POPE.

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It is not unreasonable to call the period we are considering *the Age of Pope.' He is the representative poet of his century. Its literary merits and defects are alike conspicuous in his verse, and he stands immeasurably above the numerous versifiers who may be said to belong to his school. Savage Landor has observed that there is no such thing as a school of poetry, and this is true in the sense that the essence of this divine art cannot be transmitted, but the form of the art may be, and Pope's style of workmanship made it readily imitable by accomplished craftsmen. Although he affected to call poetry an idle trade he devoted his whole life to its pursuit, and there are few instances in literature in which genius and unwearied labour have been so successfully united. It is to Pope's credit, that, with everything against him in the race of life, he attained the goal for which he started in his youth. The means he employed to reach it were frequently perverse and discreditable, but the courage with which he overcame the obstacles in his path commands our admiration. Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21st, 1688.

He was the only son of his father, a merAlexander Pope chant or tradesman, and a Roman Catholic (1688-1744).

at a time when the members of that church were proscribed by law. The boy was a cripple from his

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birth, and suffered from great bodily weakness both in youth and manhood. Looking back upon his life in after years he called it a long disease.' The elder Pope seems to have retired from business soon after his son's birth, and at Binfield, nine miles from Windsor, twenty-seven years of the poet's life were spent. As a papist' Pope was excluded from the Universities and from every public career, but even under happier circumstances his health would have condemned him to a secluded life. He gained some instruction from the family priest, and also went for a short time to school, but for the most part he was self-educated, and studied so severely that at seventeen his life was probably saved by the sound advice of Dr. Radcliffe to read less and to ride on horseback every day. The rhyming faculty was very early developed, and to use his own phrase he * lisped in numbers. As a boy he felt the magic of Spenser, whose enchanting sweetness and boundless wealth of imagination have been now for three hundred years a joy to every lover of poetry. Something, too, he learned from Waller and from Sandys, both of whom, but especially the former, had been of service in giving smoothness to the iambic distich, in which all of Pope's best poems are written. Dryden, however, whom when a little boy he saw at Will's coffee-house— Virgilium tantum vidi' records the memorable day-was the poet whose influence he felt most powerfully. Like Gray several years later, he declared that he learnt versification wholly from his works. From knowing Walsh,' the best critic in the nation in Dryden's opinion, the youthful Pope received much friendly counsel; and he had another wise friend in Sir William Trumbull, formerly Secretary of State, who recognized his genius, and gave him as warm a friendship as an old man can offer to a young one.

The dissolute Restoration dramatist, Wycherley, was also his, temporary companion. The old

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man, if Pope's story be true, asked him to correct his poems, which are indeed beyond correction, as the youthful critic appears to have hinted, and the two parted company

The Pastorals, written, according to Pope's assertion, at the age of sixteen, were published in 1709, and won an amount of praise incomprehensible in the present day. Mr. Leslie Stephen has happily appraised their value in calling them mere school-boy exercises.' Not thus, however, were they regarded by the poet, or by the critics of his age, yet neither he nor they could have divined the rapid progress of his fame, and that in about six years' time he would be regarded as the greatest of living poets. The Essay on Criticism, written, it appears, in 1709, was published two years later, and received the highest honour a poem could then have. It was praised by Addison in the Spectator as 'a very fine poem,' and a masterpiece

' in its kind.' The kind,' suggested by the Ars Poetica of Horace, and the Art Poétique of Boileau-translated with Dryden's help by Sir William Soame-suited the current taste for criticism and argument in rhyme, which had led Roscommon to write an Essay on Translated Verse, and Sheffield an Essay on Poetry. The Essay on Criticism is a marvellous production for a young man who had scarcely passed his maturity when it was published. To have written lines and couplets that live still in the language and are on everyone's lips is an achievement of which any poet might be proud, and there are at least twenty such lines or couplets in the poem.

In 1713 Windsor Forest appeared. Through the most susceptible years of life the poet had lived in the country, but Nature and Pope were not destined to become friends; he looked at her 'through the spectacles of books' and his description of natural objects is invariably of the conven

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tional type. Although never a resident in London he was unable in the exercise of his art to breathe any atmosphere save that of the town, and might have said, in the words of Lessing to his friend Kleist, “When you go to the country I go to the coffee-house,'?

The use, or as it would be more correct to say the abuse, of classical mythology in the description of rural scenes had the sanction of great names, and Pope was not likely to reject what Spenser and Milton had sanctioned. Gods and goddesses therefore play a conspicuous part in his description of the Forest. The following lines afford a fair illustration of the style throughout, and the sole merit of the poem is the smoothness of versification in which Pope excelled.

*Not proud Olympus yields a nobler sight,
Though gods assembled grace his towering height,
Than what more humble mountains offer here,
When in their blessings all those gods appear.
See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned,
Here blushing Flora paints th' enamelled ground,
Here Ceres' gifts in waving prospect stand,
And nodding tempt the joyful reaper's hand;
Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
And peace and plenty tell a Stuart reigns.'

Pope, who was never known to laugh, was a great wit, but his sense of humour was small, and the descent from these deities to Queen Anne savours not a little of bathos.

In 1712 Pope had published The Rape of the Lock, which

1 Some qualification may be made to these statements. Pope took pleasure in landscape gardening on the English plan, as opposed to the formality of the French and Dutch systems, and the design of the Prince of Wales's garden is said have een copied from the poet's at Twickenham.

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Addison justly praised as a delicious little thing.' At the same time he advised the poet not to attempt improving it, which he proposed to do, and Pope most unreasonably attributed this advice to jealousy. In 1714 the delightful poem appeared in its present form with the machinery of sylphs and gnomes adopted from the mysteries of the Rosicrucians. Pope styles it an heroi-comical poem, and judged in the light of a burlesque it is conceived and executed with an art that is beyond praise. Lord Petre, a Roman Catholic peer, had cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair, much to the indignation of her family and possibly of the young lady also. Pope wrote the poem to remove the discord caused by the fatal shears, but its publication, and two or three offensive allusions it contained, only served to add to Miss Fermor's annoyance. The celebrated lady

• herself,' the poet wrote, “is offended, and which is stranger, not at herself but me. Is not this enough to make a writer never be tender of another's character or fame?'

But Pope, whose praise of women is too often a libel upon them, was not as tender as he ought to have been of the lady's reputation.

The offence felt by the heroine of the poem is now un. heeded; the dainty art exhibited is a permanent delight, and our language can boast no more perfect specimen of the poetical burlesque than the Rape of the Lock. The machinery of the sylphs is managed with perfect skill, and nothing can be more admirable than the charge delivered by Ariel to the sylphs to guard Belinda from an apprehended but unknown danger. The concluding lines shall be quoted :

• Whatever spirit, careless of his charge,
His post neglects, or leaves the fair at large,
Shall feel sharp vengeance soon o'ertake his sins,
Be stopped in vials, or transfixed with pins;

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