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His primary and principal purpose was to be a poet, with which his father accidentally concurred, by proposing subjects, and obliging him to correct his performances by many revisals ; after which the old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would say, “ these are good rhymes.”
In his peruşal of the English poets he soon distinguished the versification of Dryden, which he considered as the model to be studied, and was impressed with such veneration for his instructor, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him.
Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before Pope was twelve, so early must he therefore have felt the power of harmony, and the zeal of genius. Who does not wish that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer?
The earliest of Pope's productions is his “ Ode on Solitude," written before he was twelve, in which there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's performances at
the same age.
His time was now wholly spent in reading and writing. As he read the Classicks, he amused himself with translating them : and at fourteen made a version of the first book of the “ Thebais," which, with some revision, he afterwards published. He must have been at this time, if he had no help, a considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.
By Dryden's Fables, which had then been not long published, and were much in the hands of poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appearance, and put “ January and “ May," and the “ Prologue of the wife of Bath,” into modern English. He translated likewise the Epistle of “ Sappho to Phaon” from Ovid, to complete the version which was before imperfect; and wrote some other small pieces, which he afterwards printed.
He sometimes imitated the English poets, and professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon “ Silence,” after Rochester's “ Nothing." He had now formed his versification, and the smoothness of his numbers surpassed his original; but this is a small part of his praise; he discovers such. acquaintance both with human and public affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor Forest.
Next year he was desirous of opening to himself new sources of knowledge by making himself acquainted with modern languages; and removed for a time to London, that he might study French and Italian, which, as he desired nothing more than to read them, were by diligent application soon dispatched Of Italian learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.
He then returned to Binfield, and delighted himself with his own poetry. He tried all styles, and many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epick poem, with panegyricks on the princes of Europe ; and, as he confesses, “ thought himself the greatest genius that ever was.” Self-confidence is the first requisite of great undertakings. He, indeed, who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, without knowing the powers of other men, is very liable to error; but it was the felicity of Pope to rate himself at his real value.
Most of his puerile productions were, by his maturer judgement, afterwards destroyed ;'“ Alcander," the epick poem, was burnt by the persuasion of Atterbury. The tragedy was founded on the legend of St. Gencvieve. Of the comedy there is no account.
Concerning his studies it is related, that he translated “ Tully on old Age;" and that, besides his books of poetry and criticism, he read “ Temple's Essays" and “ Locke on human understanding." His reading, though his favourite authors are not known, appears to have been sufficiently extensive and multifarious; for his early pieces shew, with sufficient evidence, his knowledge of books.
He that is pleased with himself easily imagines that he shall please others. Sir William Trumbal, who had been ambassador at Constantinople, and secretary of state, when he retired from business, fixed his residence in the neighbourhood of Binfield. Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced to the statesman of sixty, and so distinguished himself, that their interviews ended in friendship and correspondence. Pope was, through his whole life, ambitious of splendid acquaintance; and he seems to have wanted neither diligence nor success in attracting the notice of the great ; for from his first entrance into the world, and his entrance was very early, he was admitted to familiarity with those whose rank or station made them most conspicuous.
From the age of sixteen the life of Pope, as an author, may be properly computed. He now wrote his pastorals, which were shewn to the Poets and Criticks of that time; as they well deserved, they were read with admiration, and many praises were bestowed upon them and upon the Preface, which is, both elegant and learned in a high degree; they were, however, not published till five years afterwards.
Cowley, Milton and Pope, are distinguished among the English Poets by the early exertion of their powers; but the works of Cowley alone were published in his childhood, and therefore of him only can it be certain that his puerile performances received no improvement from his maturer studies.
At this time began his acquaintance with Wycherley, a man who seems to have had among his contemporaries his full share of reputation, to have
been esteemed without virtue, and caressed without good-humour. Pope was proud of his notice; Wycherly wrote verses in his praise, which he was charged by Dennis with writing to himself, and they agreed for a while to flatter one another. It is pleasant to remark how soon Pope learned the cant of an author, and began to treat criticks with contempt, though he had yet suffered nothing from them.
But the fondness of Wycherly was too violent to last. His esteem of Pope was such, that he submitted some poems to his revision ; and when Pope, perhaps proud of such confidence, was sufficiently bold in his criticisms, and liberal in his alterations, the old scribbler was angry to see his pages defaced, and felt more pain from the detection than content from the amendment of his faults. They parted; but Pope always considered him with kindness, and visited hiin a little time before he died.
Another of his early correspondents was Mr. Cromwell, of whom I have learned nothing particular but that he used to ride a hunting in a tye-wig. He was fond, and perhaps vain, of amusing himself with poetry and criticism; and sometimes sent his performances to Pope, who did not forbear such remarks as were now-and-then unwelcome. Pope, in his turn, put the juvenile version of “ Statius" into his hands for correction.
Their correspondence afforded the publick its first knowledge of Pope's Epistolary Powers; for his Letters were given by Cromwell to one Mrs. Thomas; and she many years afterwards sold them to Curll, who inserted them in a volume of his Miscellanies.
Walsh, a name yet preserved among the minor poets, was one of his first encouragers. His regard was gained by the Pastorals, and from him Pope received the council from which he seems to have regulated his studies. Walsh advised him to correctness, which, as he told him, the English poets had hitherto neglected, and which therefore was left to him as a basis of fame; and, being delighted with rural poems, recommended to him to write a pastoral comedy, like those which are read so eagerly in Italy; a design which Pope probably did not approve, as he did not follow it.
Pope had now declared himself a poet; and, thinking himself entitled to poetical conversation, began at seventeen to frequent Will's, a coffee-house on the north side of Russel-street in Covent-Garden, where the wits of that time used to assemble, and where Dryden had, when he lived, been accustomed to preside.
During this period of his life he was indefatigably diligent, and insatiably curious; wanting health for violent, and money for expensive pleasures; and having excited in himself very strong desires of intellectual eminence, he spent much of his time over his books; but he read only to store his mind with facts and images, seizing all that his authors presented with undistinguishing voracity, and with an appetite for knowledge too eager to be nice.
In a nind like his, however, all the faculties were at once involuntarily im. proving. Judgnient is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books inust compare one opinion or one style with another; and, when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer. But the account given by himself of his studies was, that from fourteen to twenty he read only for amusement, from twenty to twenty-seven for improvement and instruction; that in the first part of this time he desired only to know, and in the second he endeavoured to judge.
The Pastorals, which had been for some time handed about among poets and criticks, were at last printed (1709,) in Tonson's Miscellany, in a volume which began with the Pastorals of Philips, and ended with those of Pope.
The same year was written the “ Essay on Criticism;" a work which displays such extent of comprehension, such nicety of distinction, such acquaintance with mankind, and such knowledge buth of ancient and modern learning, as are not often attained by the maturest age and longest experience. It was published about two years afterwards; and, being praised by Addison in the “ Spectator” with sufficient liberality, met with so much favour as enraged Dennis, " who,” he says, “ found himself attacked, without any “manner of provocation on his side, and attacked in his person, instead of “ his writings, by one who was wholly a stranger to him, at a time when “ all the world knew he was persecuted by fortune ; and not only saw that “ this was attempted in a clandestine manner, with the utmost falsehood « and calumny, but found that all this was done by a little affected hypo« crite, who had nothing in his mouth at the same time but truth, candour, « friendship, good-nature, humanity, and magnanimity."
How the attack was clandestine is not easily perceived, nor how his person is depreciated; but he seems to have known something of Pope's character, in whom may be discovered an appetite to talk too frequently of his own virtues.
The pamphlet is such as rage might be expected to dictate. He supposes himself to be asked two questions; whether the Essay will succeed, and who or what is the author.
Its success he admits to be secured by the false opinions then prevalent ; the author he concludes to be young and raw.
“ First, because he discovers a sufficiency beyond his last ability, and “ hath rashly undertaken a task infinitely above his force. Secondly, while « this little author struts, and affects the dictatorian air, he plainly shews, " that at the same time he is under the rod; and, while he pretends to give “ law to others, is a pedantick slave to authority and opinion. Thirdly, he “ hath, like school-boys, borrowed both from living and dead. Fourthly, “ he knows not his own mind, and frequently contradicts himself. Fifthly, " he is almost perpetually in the wrong."
All these positions he attempts to prove by quotations and remarks; but his desire to do mischief is greater than his power. He has, however, justly criticised some passages in these lines :
There are whom heav’n has bless'd with store of wit,
It is apparent that wit has two meanings, and that what is wanted, though called wit, is truly judgment. So far Dennis is undoubtedly right; but, not content with argument, he will have a little mirth, and triumphs over the first couplet in terms too elegant to be forgotten. “ By the way, what
rare numbers are here! Would not one swear that this youngster had es"poused some antiquated Muse, who had sued out a divorce on account of “ impotence from some superannuated sinner; and, having been p-xed by “ her former spouse, has got the gout in her decrepid age, which makes her “hobble so damnably.” This was the man who would reform a nation sinking into barbarity. In another place Pope himself allowed that Dennis bad detected
of those blunders which are called “bulls.” The first edition had this line :
What is this wito
« this wit
How," says the critic, “ can wit be scorn'd where it is not? Is not this afgure frequently employed in Hiberoian land? The person that wants
indeed be scorned, but the scorn shews the honour which " the contemner has for wit.” Of this remark Pope made the proper use, by correcting the passage.
I have preserved, I think, all that is reasonable in Dennis's criticism : it remains that justice be done to his delicacy. “ For his acquaintance (says “ Dennis) he names Mr. Walsh, who had by no means the qualification which " this author reckons absolutely necessary to a critick, it being very certain " that he was, like this Essayer, a very indifferent poet; he loved to be well" dressed ; and I remember a little young gentleman whom Mr. Walsh “ used to take into his company as a double foil to his person and capa
city.--Enquire between Sunninghill and Oakingham for a young, short,
squab gentleman, the very bow of the God of Love, and tell me whether " he be a proper author to make personal reflections ?-He may extol the "ancients, but he has reason to thank the gods that he was born a modern; "for had he been born of Grecian parents, and his father consequently had " by law had the absolute disposalos him, his life had been no longer than that " of one of his poems, the life of half a day. Let the person of a gentleman