Shall feel sharp vengeance soon o'ertake his sins;
Be stopped in vials or transfixed with pins,
Or plunged in lakes of bitter washes lie,
Or wedged whole ages in a bodkin's eye;
Gums and pomatums shall his flight restrain,
While clogged he beats his silver wings in vain;
Or alum styptics with contracting power,
Shrink his thin essence like a rivelled flower;
Or as Ixion fixed the wretch shall feel
The giddy motion of the whirling wheel,
In fumes of burning chocolate shall glow,

And tremble at the sea that froths below !" The speech of Thalestris, too, with its droll climax, is equally good:

“Methinks already I your tears survey,
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded toast,
And all your honor in a whisper lost !
How shall I then your helpless fame defend ?
'T will then be infamy to seem your friend !
And shall this prize, the inestimable prize,
Exposed through crystal to the gazing eyes,
And heightened by the diamond's circling rays,
On that rapacious hand forever blaze ?
Sooner shall grass in Hydepark Circus grow,
And wits take lodging in the sound of Bow,
Sooner let earth, air, sea, in chaos fall,

Men, monkeys, lapdogs, parrots, perish all ! ” So also Belinda's account of the morning omens : “'T was this the morning omens seemed to tell ;

Thrice from my trembling hand the patch-box fell;
The tottering china shook without a wind;

Nay, Poll sat mute, and Shock was most unkind.” The idea of the goddess of Spleen, and of her palace, where

" The dreaded East is all the wind that blows," was a very happy one. In short, the whole poem


more truly deserves the name of a creation than anything Pope ever wrote. The action is confined to a world of his own, the supernatural agency is wholly of his own contrivance, and nothing is allowed to overstep the limitations of the subject. It ranks by itself as one of the purest works of human fancy; whether that fancy be strictly poetical or not is another matter. If we compare it with the “Midsummer-night's Dream," an uncomfortable doubt is suggested. The perfection of form in the “ Rape of the Lock" is to me conclusive evidence that in it the natural genius of Pope found fuller and freer expression than in any other of his poems. The others are aggregates of brilliant passages rather than harmonious wholes.

It is a droll illustration of the inconsistencies of human nature, a more profound satire than Pope himself ever wrote, that his fame should chiefly rest upon the “ Essay on Man.” It has been

. praised and admired by men of the most opposite beliefs, and men of no belief at all. Bishops and free-thinkers have met here on a common ground of sympathetic approval. And, indeed, there is no particular faith in it. It is a droll medley of inconsistent opinions. It proves only two things beyond a question, that Pope was not a great thinker ; and that wherever he found a thought, no matter what, he could express it so tersely, so clearly, and with such smoothness of versification as to give it an everlasting currency. Hobbes's unwieldy Leviathan, left stranded there on the shore of the last age, and nauseous with the stench of its

selfishness, — from this Pope distilled a fragrant
oil with which to fill the brilliant lamps of his phi-
losophy, — lamps like those in the tombs of alche-
mists, that go out the moment the healthy air is let
in upon them. The only positive doctrines in the
poem are the selfishness of Hobbes set to music,
and the Pantheism of Spinoza brought down from
mysticism to commonplace. Nothing can be more
absurd than many of the dogmas taught in this
“Essay on Man.” For example, Pope affirms ex-
plicitly that instinct is something better than rea-
son: -

“See him from Nature rising slow to art,
To copy instinct then was reason's part ;
Thus, then, to man the voice of nature spake ;
Go, from the creatures thy instructions take;
Learn from the beasts what food the thickets yield;
Learn from the birds the physic of the field;
The arts of building from the bee receive;
Learn of the mole to plough, the worm to weave ;
Learn of the little nautilus to sail,

Spread the thin oar, or catch the driving gale."

nothing of the quiet way in which the general term nature is substituted for God, but how unutterably void of reasonableness is the theory that Nature would have left her highest product, man, destitute of that instinct with which she had endowed her other creatures! As if reason were not the most sublimated form of instinct. The accuracy on which Pope prided himself, and for which he is commended, was not accuracy of thought so much as of expression. And he cannot always even claim this merit, but only that of correct rhyme, as in one of the passages I have


already quoted from the “ Rape of the Lock” he talks of casting shrieks to heaven, - a performance of some difficulty, except when cast is needed to rhyme with last.

But the supposition is that in the “ Essay on Man” Pope did not himself know what he was writing. He was only the condenser and epigrammatizer of Bolingbroke,

a very fitting St. John for such a gospel. Or, if he did know, we can account for the contradictions by supposing that he threw in some of the commonplace moralities to conceal his real drift. Johnson asserts that Bolingbroke in private laughed at Pope's having been made the mouthpiece of opinions which he did not hold. But this is hardly probable when we consider the relations between them. It is giving Pope altogether too little credit for intelligence to suppose that he did not understand the principles of his intimate friend. The caution with which he at first concealed the authorship would argue that he had doubts as to the reception of the poem. When it was attacked on the score of infidelity, he gladly accepted Warburton's championship, and assumed whatever pious interpretation he contrived to thrust upon it. The beginning of the poem is familiar to everybody:

“Awake, my St. John, leave all meaner things

To low ambition and the pride of kings ;
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man,

A mighty maze, - but not without a plan";
To expatiate o'er a mighty maze is rather loose

writing, but the last verse, as it stood in the original editions, was,

“A mighty maze of walks without a plan;' and perhaps this came nearer Pope's real opinion than the verse he substituted for it. Warburton is careful not to mention this variation in his notes. The poem is everywhere as remarkable for its confusion of logic as it often is for ease of verse and grace of expression. An instance of both occurs in a passage frequently quoted :

Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate;

All but the page prescribed, their present state ;
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know,
Or who would suffer being here below ?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.
O, blindness to the future kindly given
That each may fill the circle meant by heaven!
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,

And now a bubble burst, and now a world!” Now, if "heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate,” why should not the lamb “skip and play,” if he had the reason of man? Why, because he would then be able to read the book of fate. But if man himself cannot, why, then, could the lamb with the reason of man ? For, if the lamb had the reason of man, the book of fate would still be hidden, so far as himself was concerned. If the inferences we can draw from appearances are equivalent to a knowledge of destiny, the know

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »