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MORAL ESSAYS AND SATIRES.
The study of Satire is full in an almost equal proportion of fascination and difficulty. A satirical poet draws his materials not from the lasting forms and images of the unseen world, but from the actions, manners, and fashions of his own passing age. As a master of expression he preserves in his verse the life of the past in a state of suspended animation, and the reader, who possesses a perfect key to his meaning, may therefore hope to recover the image of a vanished society, as it appeared to the mind of a poet, claiming in a special sense to represent Truth. But to arrive at the exact meaning of the satirist is a matter of difficulty, since the effect of his portrait is produced by a thousand shades and touches of personal allusion, the significance of which has been obscured by the lapse of time. And even supposing that the sense of his text is fully grasped, there is still a doubt how far his satire itself is just. All satirists have been doomed to suffer from a suspicion that their moral zeal is not so disinterested as they pretend. Juvenal's descriptions of vice are thought to be exaggerated for the sake of poetical effect; Horace was accused of indulging his love of ridicule; Boileau had to defend himself from the charge of envy. It is at least a question whether the indictment, brought against the satirist by his contemporaries, is not as well founded as that which he himself brings against his age.
In the Satires of Pope, all these doubts and difficulties are experienced in an aggravated form. In the first place, he unites in himself the various characteristics of all his predecessors. His satiric writings comprehend the Moral Essays, the Imitations of Horace, the so-called Prologue and Epilogue to the Satires, and the Dunciad ; and in these several poems he is by turns philosophical like Persius, autobiographical like Horace, an assailant of social corruption like Juvenal, and a scourge of literary pretenders like Boileau. Moreover, his account of his motives varies as much as his manner. At one time he speaks of himself as driven to satire by the bent of his genius : Fools rush into my head, and so I write.
Imitation of Horace, Sat. i. 14. At another moment he protests that he resorts to it only in self-defence :
Peace is my dear delight, not Fleury's more,
But touch me, and no minister so sore.-Ibid., v. 75. And, in yet another mood, he professes himself a plain moral reformer :
Ask you what provocation I have had !
Epilogue to Satires, ii. 197. But, besides this inconsistency with himself, the evidence proves incontestably that, with regard to the second of the motives thus alleged, he was himself the first aggressor in many of the quarrels in which he was engaged, and that, as to the third, a large element of personal or party feeling underlies his most solemn protestations of public spirit. Add to this his unconquerable propensity to mystification and intrigue.
He was, as Lady Bolingbroke said, " politique aux choux et aux raves.' The obscurity of personal allusion, which is a paramount difficulty in all satire, becomes almost desperate in Pope, from his habit of veiling his personal allusions under fictitious names or initial letters. Even in his own day the practice was fet to be an objection, and we find Swift making his protest against it on three several occasions. On the appearance of the Dunciad, the Dean writes to Pope (16 July, 1728) :
“The notes I could wish to be very large in what relates to the persons concerned, for I have long observed that twenty miles from London nobody understands hints, initial letters, or town facts and passages :-I am sure it will be a great disadvantage to the poem, that the persons and facts would not be understood till an explanation came out, and a very full one. Again I insist you must have your asterisks filled up with the real names of the real dunces.”
Swift's advice was followed with regard to the dunces; but in the subsequent satires, when more formidable persons were attacked, Pope, whether from caution or a desire to stimulate curiosity, reverted to his old practice of 'hints and initial letters. Once more Swift remonstrated (December, 1732):
“Your poem on the Use of Riches' has been just printed here, and we have no objection but the obscurity of several passages by our ignorance in facts and persons, which makes us lose abundance of the satire. Had the printer given me notice, I would have honestly printed the names at length where I happened to know them, and writ explanatory notes, which, however, would have been but few, for my long absence hath made me ignorant of what passes out of the scene where I am.”
And again he writes to Alderman Barber, 8th August, 1738 :
“I very much like Mr. Pope's last poem ‘MDCCXXXVIII.,' called 'Dialogue II.,' but I live so obscurely, and know so little of what passes in London, that I cannot know the names of persons and things by initial letters.”
If this was the feeling of an intimate friend of Pope's, living always within reach of an explanation of difficulties, how much more must it be ours, to whom the things and persons described in these satires are at most but images, and who can only grope among the obscurities of the text by the light of research and conjecture! How can we hope, nearly one hundred and forty years after Pope's death, to appreciate rightly the numerous judgments passed by him on his contem
poraries, to reconcile the inconsistencies in his own account of himself, to penetrate the motives which led him to make constant changes in the various editions of his Satires and Moral Essays, to alter the names of the persons satirised, and to perplex the plain meaning of his text by the ambiguities and equivocations of his notes ?
Problems such as these ought at least to receive the most careful and dispassionate examination of the commentator; yet, though the numerous editors of Pope have been almost all men of more than average ability, their remarks are disfigured by an appearance of acrimony and party spirit. The reason is that Pope himself has made it almost impossible to consider the nature of his poetical genius apart from his moral character. Whenever he was hard pressed by the many assailants whom his satire provoked, he was in the habit of falling back on his reputation for integrity and virtue, while his enemies on their side were never wearied of pointing out the wide difference between his professions and his practice. The conflict was prolonged beyond his life. Within a very short period after his death, Bolingbroke, his most intimate friend, employed Mallet, another of his favoured acquaintance, to blast his reputation; and, in indirect answer to Mallet's charges, appeared the edition of his works by Warburton, the preface to which was evidently intended as a defence of the poet:
“To have been one of the first poets in the world,” says the editor, “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.”
Warburton's commentary on the text, written in the same
spirit of moral and critical adulation, naturally provoked opposition from those who were inclined to take a less favourable view of the poet's character and genius. Hence a succession of editors arose, each bent on establishing his own view, and demolishing that of his immediate predecessor; and thus, amid a conflict of theories on matters which were almost beyond the reach of evidence, a considerable portion of the poet's text, which might have been explained by those who lived nearest to his own time, has been left, as of merely secondary interest, to the tender mercies of modern conjecture. Ungrateful as it may seem for an editor to find fault with the work of his predecessors, it is necessary at this point to dwell with some detail on their shortcomings, in order that the reader may judge with what caution all commentaries on Pope's satires should be approached, and more especially the edition of Warburton, from whose original stem the whole controversy on Pope's genius has been gradually developed.
Pope, by his will, left to Warburton the property in all such of his works already printed as he hath written or shall write commentaries or notes upon; and all the profits from editions as he shall publish without future alterations.' Warburton had first attracted Pope's attention by his defence of the Essay on Man, and had afterwards written a commentary on the Essay on Criticism. Struck with the ability which he showed, Pope determined to make further use of him, and he did so in a very characteristic fashion. In a letter dated 27 November, 1742, he writes to him:
“A project has arisen in my mind to make you in some measure the editor of the new edition of the ‘ Dunciad,' if you have no scruple of owning some of the graver notes which are now added to those of Dr. Arbuthnot. I mean it as a kind of prelude or advertisement to the public of your commentaries on the Essays on Man,' and on Criticism,' which I propose to print next, in another volume proportioned to this. I only doubt whether an avowal of these notes to so ludicrous