« AnteriorContinuar »
The Iliad translation was followed, between 1725 and 1726, by a version of the Odyssey. In the latter, Pope employed two minor poets, William Broome and Elijah Fenton, as his assistants in several of the books of the poem, but carefully revised and polished the material with which they provided him.
In 1719 Pope had secured the lease of a villa in Twickenham, where he continued to live till his death in 1744. He is buried in Twickenham church. In these later years Pope lived the life of an independent man of letters. He produced his edition of Shakespeare (1725), and composed such important original poems as the Moral Essays and An Essay on Man (1733-34)—these together forming the Ethick Epistles—The Dunciad (1728-43), and the Imitations of Horace (1734–38). These latter together with the wholly original Epistle to Arbuthnot constitute perhaps his most mature and his finest work. Pope follows Horace closely, but substitutes contemporary allusions for those of the original, and frequently expands and adds to his material considerably. His assumption of the Horatian persona enables him effectively to appear as a detached moralist and commentator on his own age. This is partly because there was a more than superficial analogy between the Rome of Horace's time and the England of Pope's. Both were ages of
prosperity and stability following on a period of prolonged civil disturbance, and their literary ideals were also similar. In both cases what was aimed at was the polished imitation of generally recognized models of excellence, rather than originality of an absolute kind. Within this framework the poet was to express generally recognized and universal truths of human nature, in a language at once memorable and refined such as might most fittingly transmit those truths to succeeding generations. The term 'Augustan', derived as it is from the Emperor under whom Horace wrote, is therefore quite fittingly used, in English literary parlance, for the age of Pope also.
Pope is then the greatest poet of this English Augustan age. Of his immediate literary contemporaries, only his friend Swift excelled him in intellectual and imaginative power; and in command
of the technique of verse—especially of the rhymed couplet as a vehicle of satire and of reasoned argument-only his great predecessor and acknowledged master, Dryden, can be compared to him. The heroic couplet, indeed, Pope brought to perfection, and in his mature writings, seldom ventured to handle any other form; and when he did so venture (as in the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day) he only partially succeeded. Those then who start with the presupposition that the heroic couplet is artificial and monotonous, or merely a vehicle for neat and polished epigram, will find their capacity for appreciating Pope's poetry severely limited. Yet in spite of the much greater appreciation and far more balanced criticism of Pope which has grown up over the last quarter of a century or so, this attitude, a hangover from nineteenth-century prejudice, is still far too common. It even tends to be accentuated by a distinctively modern development–our lazy reading habits. Under the impact of the ever-increasing volume of ephemeral popular journalistic and entertainment literature, intended not for reading but merely for skimming, we read too quickly, allowing the eye to run ahead of the ear and of the brain itself. Pope's verse should never be read in this way, but for preference out loud, at the speed of the natural speaking voice.
Full value should be given to the pauses, and the astonishingly subtle variety with which Pope introduces them into his verse. Pope's real mastery will then appear—a mastery over a limited but supremely delicate and sensitive instrument, like the clavichord and harpsichord of his own age which, when the ear of the listener has become accustomed to them, will often make the rhetoric of the nineteenth century and modern piano seem ponderous by comparison. For Pope is far more than a pointed epigrammatist, and indeed, though many of his greatest triumphs were won in the field of satire, they are not his only triumphs. He can be splendidly rhetorical (as in his Homeric translations and parts of The Essay on Man) or easily conversational (as in his Horatian imitations and Familiar Epistles). He can make a sudden but perfectly natural transition from the fiercest satire to the personally tender (a good
example of this is in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, in the verses on Bufo and those immediately following on the death of Gay). His imagery is equally wide in its scope, it ranges from the Claude-like landscape painting of Windsor Forest to the Hogarthian grotesque realism of the Dunciad, from the exquisite sensuous realization of the artificial in The Rape of the Lock to the romantic wildness of Eloisa to Abelard.
But though we may readily admit the brilliance of Pope's writing, as well as a variety and range of tone not so often acknowledged, it may still be difficult to define the essential quality of his imagination—that in fact which makes him a great poet. The title, however, has often been denied to him. Matthew Arnold, indeed, went so far as to declare that both Dryden and Pope were 'not classics of our poetry, but classics of our prose’ and found the work of the latter lacking in 'high seriousness' and 'an adequate criticism of life'. Yet this is hardly to take Pope on his own terms, nor on those of his own and his age's ideal of what poetry should be. For the Neo-classical age did take poetry seriously, and accorded to it an essentially moral, too often indeed, a didactic function. But the moral approach was one very different from that of Arnold or his Victorian contemporaries.
What this approach was may perhaps best be gathered from a statement of Pope himself, recorded by his friend Joseph Spence. ‘About fifteen,’ Pope told Spence, “I got acquainted with Mr. Walsh: he encouraged me much, and used to tell me that there was one way left of excelling; for though we had several great poets, we never had any one great poet that was correct, and he desired me to make that my study and aim.' This ideal of correctness is central to Pope and to his age, and it is a moral as much as an aesthetic ideal. Correctness meant adherence to the rules which criticism had deduced from the practice of the great poets of Classical antiquity and which these poets themselves had discovered in Nature. Nature was not so much the external nature of landscape (though the concept included that also) as human nature, the root quality of man's mind, everywhere and in all ages the same, modified only by accidental, local and temporal circumstances. To write correctly then was not to make oneself the slave of a set of arbitrary canons, but to make oneself free of universal truth. To neglect it was a moral offence, because it involved a falsification of values and a distortion of truth.
This frequently quoted statement of Pope on correctness must, therefore, be taken in conjunction with one rather less familiar, which follows shortly afterwards in the same conversation with Spence. 'I am in no concern,” Pope says, 'whether people should say this is writ well or ill; but that it is writ with a good design. “He has writ in the cause of virtue, and done something to mend people's morals” is the only commendation I long for.' This moral concern is an essentially humanistic one. It directly parallels Swift's belief that his Gulliver's Travels would ‘marvellously mend the world'. It is the duty of the imaginative writer to teach, by displaying the true nature of Man, and his relation to the Universal, and also by castigating in satire those follies and vices of his own time which are essentially deviations from Nature. Properly understood, a poetry thus inspired surely does not lack its own kind of high seriousness, and it is most certainly a criticism of life. Where it differs from that of the nineteenth century, as well as from that of our own day, is in its steady confidence that there is a clearly discernible, fixed and unchanging human nature, which furnishes the basis on which this criticism rests. In the nineteenth century evolutionary historicism, and in our own day the social and psychological sciences, have largely undermined this belief. Hence for Arnold, and still more for us, criticism of life no longer rests on the universal light of an unchanging and readily discernible authority, but on that of subjective, questing, fitful and uncertain Romantic vision.
So, far indeed from being no poet, Pope showed many of the characteristics of the poetical temperament (if we may allow that there is such a thing) in a singularly pure form. He was intensely devoted to his art, and furthermore made it almost the entire business of his life. This a remarkable combination of historical and personal circumstances both permitted and, as we may say, more or less compelled him to do. He was born of Roman Catholic parents in the year of the Glorious Revolution, which saw the deposition and flight of James II, and with it the death-blow to any hopes of a Roman Catholic ascendancy in England. The Papists, though they included some old families of culture and distinction (like Pope's friends, the Fermors and the Blounts), formed a despised and persecuted minority--the persecution taking the form of a series of petty and vindictive Penal Laws, which were not and could not be strictly enforced. They meant, however, that Roman Catholics spent their lives in an atmosphere of equivocation, subterfuge and evasion; and to this must be attributed some, at least, of the disingenuousness which undoubtedly sometimes marked Pope's character in later life even though recent research has done much to clear him from some of the worst imputations which have been made against him. It is true that the arguments of Pope's verse (especially in An Essay on Man) seem often to tend towards the universalism, naturalism and scepticism which formed part of the general intellectual atmosphere of his century. But he always remained formally loyal, at least, to the religion of his parents. This religion not only barred him from a Public School and University education, and also from any hope of ever attaining public office-whether that might offer the opportunity of actually exercising political power, or merely of a comfortable sinecure.
But these very circumstances enabled Pope as a boy to follow his own bent, and to engage in an intense and almost exclusive study of the English and Latin poets, and in his later years to devote himself entirely to literary composition. His enormously successful translation of Homer was the 'five years labour' which made him financially independent. No longer having to rely on private or public patronage, he settled down in his villa at Twickenham, to play the congenial part of the detached Horatian observer and moralist. Along with the social disabilities entailed on him by his religion,