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In the crowd of ambitious youths that surrounded Addison at Button's coffee-house, for about a year, was Alexander Pope. At an age when most youths have not thrown aside their tops and balls, Pope's young genius was preparing to wing its lofty flight; already he aspired to the poetical crown, which, since the death of Dryden, in 1700, no one had been deemed worthy to wear. In the year 1711 Pope established his reputation as the first poet of his age, and indeed of the eighteenth century, by publishing his
Essay on Criticism." This finished and elegant poem, the work of a young man of twenty-one or two, displays a ripe judgment, an extensive reading, and deep reflection far beyond his age. It was received with a burst of admiration, and, by universal consent, the laurel crown was placed upon his youthful brow. He soon after greatly added to his fame by that delicious little poem, “The Rape of the Lock," which has been justly pronounced * the most faultless work of England's most faultless poet. It is, indeed, the most perfect piece of poetry in our language. In no other work has Pope so pleasingly displayed the peculiar marks of his genius : a rich and brilliant fancy, an exquisite polish of language, and a musical sweetness of versification.
The description of the heroine is beyond all praise :
Look on her face, and you'll forget them all.”
The rising glory of Pope began to dim the poetical reputation of Addison, just as, a hundred years later, the splendid genius of Byron caused Scott“ to pale his ineffectual fires,” and, fortunately for the world, to turn his attention to romantic fiction, in which he stands almost unrivalled. But Addison had reigned and ruled too long to allow a " brother near his throne." He, who had few equals, could
• Horace Binney Wallace, ". Literary Criticisms.”
not bear a superior ; and he, who felt himself a sovereign, could not remain a subject; and so the greatest poet and the greatest prose-writer of their age separated. Pope set up a rival court at Twickenham, a charming retreat on the banks of the Thames. Here he received the visits of his friends, who were among the most brilliant, the most polished, the most accomplished gentlemen that the world has ever seen. They were great and celebrated in their day and generation, and are still remembered : Arbuthnot, one of the wittiest, wisest, gentlest of mankind; the all-accomplished Bolingbroke, the Alcibiades of his age; the generous Oxford ; the great painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller ; the witty, the dashing, the magnificent Peterborough; the splendid Congreve; the kind, the indolent, the gentle Gay. Some of this delightful company Pope has described in sparkling verse:
66 Granville the polite
Happier their author when by these beloved !" In the year 1713, in the twenty-fifth year of his age, Pope commenced, and in twelve years completed, the colossal task of translating the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. This splendid literary performance Johnson* pronounces poetical wonder which no age or nation can pretend to equal.” Had Pope written nothing else, this alone would have rendered his name immortal. It has not, indeed, the noble simplicity, the artless grandeur, and unaffected majesty of the great Father of Poetry; but we have the authority of Johnsont for saying that it contains a treasure of poetical elegances. It overflows with rich, beautiful, and vivid descriptions of men, gods, nature, and battles, all expressed in the most pleasing and musical language. While Pope
. was occupied with this gigantic labor, he learned that Addison's friend and protegé, Tickell, was, with Addison's assistance, engaged upon another version of the Iliad. Pope was naturally very much concerned, for upon the success of his
* Life of Pope, p. 183, v. xi., Murphy's ed. Johnson's Works, London, 1816. † Idem, p. 184.
translation depended his fortune. He had been engaged upon it for years ; it had been long advertised as being in preparation ; subscriptions had been solicited, and many distinguished persons had promised to take copies ; and now, when everything pointed to a rich end,” Tickell came forward with a rival translation, patronized and introduced by the great Addison, and puffed up by Addison's subjects, the wits of Button's. Pope's suspicions were aroused. He thought and believed that Addison, Tickell, and their friends had formed a deep conspiracy against his fame and fortune. These suspicions were, no doubt, unjust. Addison was too pnre, too good, too lofty, to stoop to such baseness, either to serve a friend or injure an enemy. But Pope need not have feared a competition with Tickell. The former was a great poet, the latter was a little one. Pope left many noble and beautiful productions of his genius, Tickell left nothing which is now remembered, except his loving tribute to the memory of Addison. Tickell's version of the first book of the Iliad was published and soon forgotten. Pope's splendid translation lives, and will continue to live as long as the English language.
While Pope was still persuaded that Addison had endeavored to undermine his reputation, and, in consequence, his feelings towards Addison were anything but warm, a pamphlet appeared containing some reflections upon Pope. The latter was morbidly sensitive. He was small, sickly, and dreadfully deformed a great and brilliant mind in a weak and diseased body—and was lampooned, caricatured, and insulted by his enemies on account of these bodily defects.
What were the reflections contained in this pamphlet, whether personal or not, we can never learn, for it is no longer in existence; but whatever they were, they stung the sensitive soul of Pope to the quick. He was told by the young Earl of Warwick, son of the noble lady whom Addison afterwards married, that the pamphlet had been written by Addison's direction. Pope was furious. In his anger, he wrote that most exquisite and most polished piece of satire, addressed to Addison under the name of Atticus. For pointed and piercing wit, and refined and delicate irony, these lines are unsurpassed in any language:
" And were there one whose fires
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne ;
Who would not weep if Atticus were he?" “I sent the verses to Mr. Addison," said Pope," and he used me very civilly ever after ; and never did me any injustice, that I know of, from that time to his death, which was about three years after."
Pope's triumph was now complete, and he might have rested content with the laurels that he had already won. But for years he had been subject to the malignant attacks of a horde of miserable scribblers, who, from their Grub-street garrets, threw dirt and foul things upon the greatest of living poets. They ridiculed his puny person ; they called him vile names; they laughed at his personal defects ; they exhausted the vocabulary of abuse in heaping insults upon the devoted head of the little giant of literature. Was this not enough to make a savage misanthrope of him—to embitter him so that, like Lot's wife, he became “a pillar of salt ?” But he did not like the most famous poet of the present century, pour forth his misanthropy in eloquent curses against the God that made him. He did not write volumes of magnificent poetry to tell the world that he was the most miserable of men. He did not call heaven and earth to witness, in lines of transcendent beauty, that life was a burden and death would be a release. He determined to take a sweeping revenge, and, like Cæsar Borgia, crush all his 'enemies with a single blow. He knew his power. He knew that he had a giant mind in a feeble body, and he determined to use his strength like a giant. He wrote the Dunciad. In richness of ideas, in strength of diction, and in intensity of feeling, this production surpasses all that Pope had previously done, and is perhaps the finest specimen of literary satire which exists in any language. The whole vocabulary of irony is exhausted ; the whole universe of contempt is ransacked. We find the combined merits of the most dissimilar satirists--the wild, fearless, inventive, picturesque, extravagance of Aristophanes, the bitter irony and cold sarcasm of Lucian, the elegant raillery of Horace, and Juvenal's strange union of moral severity and grim pleasantry. It is curious to read these brilliant records of literary animosity, and to reflect upon the unenviable immortality which Pope's genius has conferred upon the meanest of scribblers and the most despicable of pamphleteers. Like the straws, the empty shells, and excrements of dead animals which the lava has preserved for uncounted centuries, and in which the eye of the geologist beholds the records of past convulsions, these names have been preserved uninjured through a period of time when many things a thousand times more valuable have perished forever; and they exist, and will continue to exist, as long as the English language shall endure, imperishable but valueless memorials—the trash of literature, vitrified by the lightning of indignant genius.*
This ferocious satire was received by the Dunces with a howl of indignation. They resolved upon revenge. They threatened Pope with personal violence, and, for a time, his life was in danger. They wrote pamphlets more abusive than ever, and published caricatures which must have tortured and torn the delicate aud exquisitely sensitive soul of Pope. In a new edition of the Dunciad, published in 1742, Pope dethroned Theobald, the original King of the Dunces, and placed Colley Cibber on that “bad eminence.” A perpetual war, in which no quarter was given on either side, was declared between the King of the Dunces and the King of the Satirists. Cibber answered Pope's satire with a pamphlet,
a in which he declares his resolution from that time never to bear another blow without returning it, and to tire out his adversary by perseverance, if he cannot conquer him by strength. Pope pretended to be amused by the attempts of Cibber; but it is related by the son of Richardson the painter, that he attended his father on a visit to Pope, when one of Cibber's pamphlets was put into the hands of the poet, who said, “these things are my diversion.” They sat by him while he perused it, and saw his features writhing with anguish ; and young Richardson said to his father, on their return, that he hoped to be preserved from such diversion as had been that day the lot of Pope.
• Shaw's English Literature, p. 221.