« AnteriorContinuar »
we must take into consideration Pope's stunted person and physical deformities (with consequent chronic ill-health). This increased his sensitiveness and irritability, as well as making him fatally vulnerable to personal attack-not excluding the threat of physical violence in an age that was not squeamish of it. One can hardly admire too much the courage of the man who, in spite of these handicaps, won his way in the teeth of the continual attacks of his enemies) to a universally acknowledged literary pre-eminence, not only in the England of his day, but throughout civilized Europe. One must admire no less the note of urbane good-humour which sounds through his poetry as frequently as, and indeed, more frequently than that of spleen and bitterness. Yet the myth of Pope as a twisted monster of dwarfish malignity dies hard. It has, one supposes, a kind of sinister romantic appeal. It furnishes (like the similar myth of Swift as a misanthropic madman) a convenient excuse for ignoring the implications of his poetry when they are unflattering to the presuppositions of our own age. Yet a myth it largely is. Against the picture of Pope in his unrelenting warfare against Dennis, Addison and his circle, Bentley, and the Dunces generally, we must off-set that of the tender, affectionate and loyal friend, and the generous encourager of young poets of talent. Pope was undoubtedly that notorious species of animal which, when attacked, defends itself. But the attacks made
upon him were often mean and brutal in the extreme. Furthermore, in singling out personalities as he did, Pope was not prompted solely by motives of revenge. Departure from the canons of good taste and good sense were for him, as we have seen, moral offences. He used individuals as symbols of universal corruptions no less than did a greater poet, Dante, when he relegated some of his political opponents to the lowest circles of Hell. We, for whom these eighteenth-century feuds are forgotten history, may do well, in reading Pope, mentally to substitute for the proper names in his satire those of whatever literary or political figures of our own time may seem to us personally most fittingly to symbolize the particular type of perennial wickedness or foolishness Pope is aiming at.
Pope's poetical career falls rather markedly into two periods. Of the poems written before he was thirty, very few evince the satirical power with which he is chiefly associated. Of important early poems, only An Essay on Criticism is quite typically in the Neo-classical manner. The others such as the Pastorals, Windsor Forest, The Rape of the Lock, Eloisa and the Elegy to an Unfortunate Lady exhibit in varying degrees and in different ways a type of sensibility which anticipates that of the Romanticism of a later age, rather than that which is generally thought of as characteristic of the Neo-classical period. Such a cut-and-dried dichotomy between 'Classicism' and 'Romanticism' is, however, to a large extent misleading when we are considering the development of our literature. England never submitted as whole-heartedly to the Neo-classical rules as did France. The national temperament, as well as the established prestige of Shakespeare and the growing fame of Milton, precluded it. There is a strong undercurrent of melancholy, Gothicism, Primitivism, and other so-called Romantic qualities even in many Restoration writers—for example, in the tragedies of Otway and Lee, in Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko and in some of Dryden's Fables. What is significant, however, is that it was only as he approached middle life that Pope 'stooped to truth and moralized [his] song'. The earlier verse is that of a brilliant and spirited youth. Beneath the strict convention (which may to us appear artificial, though to Pope's contemporaries it would not) there is much genuine feeling and even tenderness: note, for example, the sympathy for hunted animals and birds in Windsor Forest* and the half-amused, half-sad repining at the inevitable passing of youth and beauty, with their attendant frivolities, in Clarissa's speech at the end of The Rape of the Lock. The later work is that of an adult and morally concerned man.
Doubtless the intellectual discipline involved in the task of the Homeric translations, which form a kind of dividing wall between
Pope, in an article in Steele's Guardian, was one of the first to protest against the prevalent cruelty to animals which marked his age.
Pope's two creative periods, had something to do with this development. But more important, probably, was Pope's reaction to the changing historical situation of England. At the close of the reign of Queen Anne, Pope's Tory friends had been in power. Their great triumph, the Peace of Utrecht, seemed to Pope to promise a golden age of coming peace and prosperity. A Jacobite Restoration with the prospect of relief for the Roman Catholics, seemed still a possibility. The unexpected death of the Queen, and the coming of George I from Hanover, brought an end to all such hopes. Bolingbroke went into exile in France, while Swift ate his heart out in Ireland, his ambitions of political influence permanently frustrated. Though his Roman Catholic affiliations led Pope inevitably to associate himself with the Tories, he had no such political ambitions himself. But what happened to England under Hanoverian rule was in his eyes a progressive moral corruption. During Pope's later years the Whigs were in power, and the Tories in permanent and seemingly hopeless opposition. Walpole, though not a dictator in the modern sense, was for twenty years virtually absolute ruler of the country. He kept himself in power by his extremely skilful financial policy, by systematic corruption in both Houses of Parliament, and by control and censorship of the Press and of the Theatre. This in fact gave to England a much-needed period of stability, and increasing financial prosperity for the great City Merchants and the new Whig aristocracy. But in Pope's eyes there were 'new Saturnian days of lead and gold'. I hazard the guess that a close study of the credit and banking system in this period would throw much light on the imagery of Pope and of Swiftespecially the latter's satire on projectors. But this task still awaits the emergence of a scholar combining a knowledge of economic history with literary imagination and sensibility. Suffice it to say that much of Pope's satire is to be read by no means as an outpouring of personal spite, but as a criticism, from a traditional humanist point of view, of the materialism of a commercial society. As such, it is by no means without significance for our own day.
One of the most important results which the changing economic structure of English society in the eighteenth century brought about was the emancipation of the writer from private patronage, and his emergence as a professional man of letters. Pope himself benefited by this change, making himself financially independent through the sale of his Homer by private subscription, and such important bookseller publishers as Tonson and Lintot were always ready to give him good prices for whatever he wrote. A new middle-class reading public had in fact emerged, eager for instruction, information and entertainment. It was soon to find in the novel a form perfectly fitted to its tastes. Eventually, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the novelist was to a large extent to put the poet out of business. This Pope could not foresee, but he was acutely aware of another aspect of the situation. This was the proliferation of a different sort of literature, largely journalistic in character, often indeed scandalous or sensational, designed not to uphold the traditional standards of excellence, but to sell as quickly and as widely as possible. This was duly poured forth by the literary underworld of Grub Street scribblers and profitably marketed by such unscrupulous publishers as Edmund Curle. It is true that a popular pamphlet literature of this kind had existed since Elizabethan times, but the eighteenth century really saw the beginnings of that expansion of mass sub-literature which in our own day has reached frightening proportions, and which is a real threat to genuine culture. It is this threat which forms the subject of Pope's great mock epic, The Dunciad, culminating in the powerful concluding passage in which the return of Chaos is prophesied. The vision here presented is dark indeed. As an analysis of the actual situation of eighteenth-century England it is a piece of rhetorical over-statement. But as a prophecy we may see it as having been largely fulfilled in our own time. As a poet, then, Pope is, I suggest, more than the mere spokesman of his age. That latter rôle he did, however, perform brilliantly, and at the time of his death was generally admitted to have done so. Very soon, however, signs of a reaction started to appear. This emerged with Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1750).
Even Dr. Johnson in his magnificently balanced judgement in his Life of Pope (written, as Boswell tells us, con amore) is not so much delivering an accepted orthodoxy, as championing a cause already a little damaged. As the shift towards Romantic sensibility continued, the greatest of the Romantic critics such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt and De Quincey, were inclined to give Pope a place, albeit a high place, only in the second rank of poetry. He was held to be 'artificial rather than ‘natural. The outstanding exception in this generation is Byron, himself a major satirist, with his whole-hearted and enthusiastic championship of 'the little Queen Anne master'. In a letter to Murray, Byron wrote: 'because his truths are so clear, it is asserted that he has no invention; and because he is always intelligible, it is taken for granted that he is the “Poet of Reason”, as if this was a reason for his being no poet. Taking passage for passage, I will undertake to cite more lines teeming with imagination from Pope than from any two living poets, be they who they may.' In another letter he summed up his estimate of Pope as follows: 'Those miserable mountebanks of the day, the poets, disgrace themselves and deny God, in running down Pope, the most faultless of Poets, and almost of men. He is the moral poet of all civilization; and as such let us hope that he will one day be the national poet of all mankind.' It is true that Byron was partly using Pope as a stick to beat those poets among his contemporaries (especially Wordsworth) of whom he disapproved. But his rating of Pope is not such an extravagant overstatement as may at first sight appear. If Byron was largely blind to the profound insights which constitute the greatness of Wordsworth's poetry, he was right in maintaining that the concepts
of great poetry and of reason were not mutually exclusive. More of a European than most of his English contemporaries, he senses in Pope those qualities which stand for the movement of humanistic enlightenment. This at best, made in the eighteenth century for a common culture, transcending national frontiers, and extending from Philadelphia and Dublin to Stockholm and St. Petersburg, if centred primarily on London and Paris.