« VorigeDoorgaan »
revision of judgment would substitute “ discomforting consciousness of the public ” for “ insincerity” in judging Pope's character by his letters. He could not shake off the habits of the author, and never, or almost never, in prose, acquired that knack of seeming carelessness that makes Walpole's elaborate compositions such agreeable reading. Pope would seem to have kept a commonplace book of phrases proper to this or that occasion; and he transfers a compliment, a fine moral sentiment, nay, even sometimes a burst of passionate ardor, from one correspondent to another, with the most cold-blooded impartiality. Were it not for this curious economy of bis, no one could read his letters to Lady Wortley Montagu without a conviction that they were written by a lover. Indeed, I think nothing short of the spreto injuria forma will account for (though it will not excuse) the savage vindictiveness he felt and showed towards her. It may be suspected also that the bitterness of caste added gall to his resentment. His enemy wore that impenetrable armor of superior rank which rendered her indifference to his shafts the more provoking that it was unaffected. Even for us his satire loses its sting when we reflect that it is not in human nature for a woman to have had two such utterly irreconcilable characters as those of Lady Mary before and after her quarrel with the poet. In any view of Pope's conduct in this affair, there is an ill savor in his attempting to degrade a woman whom he had once made sacred with his love. Spenser touches the right chord when he says of the Rosalinde who had rejected him,
“Not, then, to her, that scornéd thing so base,
But to myself the blame, that lookt so high ;
In his correspondence with Aaron Hill, Pope, pushed to the wall, appears positively mean.
He vainly endeavors to show that his personalities had all been written in the interests of literature and morality, and from no selfish motive. But it is hard to believe that Theobald would have been deemed worthy of his disgustful preëminence but for the manifest superiority of his edition of Shakespeare, or that Addison would bave been so adroitly disfigured unless through wounded self-love. It is easy to conceive the resentful shame which Pope must have felt when Addison so almost contemptuously disavowed all complicity in his volunteer defence of Cato in a brutal assault on Dennis. Pope had done a mean thing to propitiate a man whose critical judgment he dreaded ; and the great man, instead of thanking him, had resented his interference as impertinent. In the whole portrait of At ticus one cannot help feeling that Pope's satire is not founded on knowledge, but rather on what his own sensitive suspicion divined of the opinions of one whose expressed preferences in poetry implied a condemnation of the very grounds of the satirist's own popularity. We shall not so easily give up the purest and most dignified figure of that somewhat vulgar generation, who ranks with Sidney and Spenser as one of the few perfect gentlemen in our literary annals. A man who could command the unswerving loyalty of honest and impulsivo Dick Steele could not have been a coward or a backbiter. The only justification alleged by Pope was of the flimsiest kind, namely, that Addison regretted the introduction of the sylphs in the second edition of the “ Rape of the Lock," saying that the poem was merum sal before. Let any one ask himself how he likes an author's emendations of any poem to which his ear had adapted itself in its former shape, and he will hardly think it needful to charge Addison with any mean motive for his conservatism in this matter. One or two of Pope's letters are so good as to make us regret that he did not oftener don the dressing-gown and slippers in his correspondence. One in particular, to Lord Burlington, describing a journey on horseback to Oxford with Lintot the bookseller, is full of a lightsome humor worthy of Cowper, almost worthy of Gray.
Joseph Warton, in summing up at the end of his essay on the genius and writings of Pope, says that the largest part of his works “is of the didactic, moral, and satiric; and, consequently, not of the most poetic species of poetry; whence it is manifest that good sense and judgment were his characteristical excellences rather than fancy and invention.” It is plain that in any strict definition there can be only one kind of poetry, and that what Warton really meant to say was that Pope was not a poet at all. This, I think, is shown by what
Johnson says in his “Life of Pope,” though he does not name Warton. The dispute on this point went on with occasional lulls for more than a halfcentury after Warton's death. It was renewed with peculiar acrimony when the Rev. W. L. Bowles diffused and confused Warton's critical opinions in his own peculiarly helpless way in editing a new edition of Pope in 1806. Bowles entirely mistook the functions of an editor, and maladroitly entangled his judgment of the poetry with his estimate of the author's character.1 Thirteen years later, Campbell, in his “ Specimens,” controverted Mr. Bowles's estimate of Pope's character and position, both as man and poet. Mr. Bowles replied in a letter to Campbell on what he called “ the invariable principles of poetry.” This letter was in turn somewhat sharply criticised by Gilchrist in the Quarterly Review. Mr. Bowles made an angry and unmannerly retort, among other things charging Gilchrist with the crime of being a tradesman's son, whereupon the affair became what they call on the frontier a free fight, in which Gilchrist, Roscoe, the elder Disraeli, and Byron took part with equal relish, though with various fortune. The last shot, in what had grown into a thirty years' war, between the partisans of what
1 Bowles's Sonnets, wellnigh forgotten now, did more than bis controversial writings for the cause he advocated. Their influence upon the coming generation was great (greater than we can well account for) and beneficial. Coleridge tells us that he made forty copies of them while at Christ's Hospital. Wordsworth's prefaces first made imagination the true test of poetry, in its more mod.
But they drew little notice till later.
was called the Old School of poetry and those of the New, was fired by Bowles in 1826. Bowles, in losing his temper, lost also what little logic he had, and though, in a vague way, æsthetically right, contrived always to be argumentatively wrong. Anger made worse confusion in a brain never very
clear, and he had neither the scholarship nor the critical faculty for a vigorous exposition of his own thesis. Never was wilder hitting than his, and he laid himself open to dreadful punishment, especially from Byron, whose two letters are masterpieces of polemic prose. Bowles most happily exemplified in his own pamphlets what was really the turningpoint of the whole controversy (though all the combatants more or less lost sight of it or never saw it), namely, that without clearness and terseness there could be no good writing, whether in prose or verse; in other words that, while precision of phrase presupposes lucidity of thought, yet good writing is an art as well as a gift. Byron alone saw clearly that here was the true knot of the question, though, as his object was mainly mischief, he was not careful to loosen it. The sincerity of Byron's admiration of Pope has been, it seems to me, too hastily doubted. What he admired in him was that patience in careful finish which he felt to be wanting in himself and in most of his contemporaries. Pope's assailants went so far as to make a defect of what, rightly considered, was a distinguished merit, though the amount of it was exaggerated. The weak point in the case was that his nicety concerned itself wholly about the phrase,