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STUDIES

IN

ENGLISH LITERATURE.

12

ALEXANDER POPE.

POPE is the principal literary figure of a great literary age. In spite of many competitors and poetical rivals, his supremacy as the first poet of his century is universally acknowledged. And the honour he received from contemporaries is in a measure still considered to be his due. Pope died in 1744, and the century and a quarter that has elapsed since his death has been marked by stupendous changes, not alone in the political world, but also in the world of literature. Between the men of Queen Anne's age and the men of the Victorian era it might seem that there was little in common beyond the passions and aspirations which belong to human nature and are alike in all ages. We stand, as it

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were, in a new world; with higher aims perhaps, certainly with stronger feelings; with wider knowledge, and urged on by an intellectual impetus and excitement of which the earlier period knew little.

The poetical revolution effected at the beginning of this century, with its marvellous wealth of thought, its exquisite music, its varied play of imagination, its fine perception of natural beauty, to which may be added, its contempt for order, threatened by its weakness as well as by its strength to overturn the sovereignty of Pope. Old barriers were broken down, old laws despised, liberty in things poetical-which too often meant extravagance and license-was proclaimed upon the housetops, and so powerful was the revulsion from what has been absurdly called the classic school of poetry, that critics with some reputation to lose did not hesitate in announcing their conviction that Pope was no poet.

The heresy spread with considerable rapidity. Lord Byron, despite his intense admiration of Pope, whom, with exaggerated emphasis, he styled "the great moral poet of all times, of all climes, of all feelings, and of all stages of existence," adding that "a thousand years will roll away before such another

can be hoped for in our literature," helped, although unwittingly, to subvert the authority of his master. Scott, great in so many ways, and as generous as he was great, carried with him the taste of the nation into a region Pope had never entered, and Wordsworth, far less popular than either, but destined as a poet to exert a wider influence, was not satisfied in thinking lightly of poetry with which he had no sympathy, but vigorously attacked the poet. That such a man should entertain a comparatively mean opinion of Pope is not surprising. Wordsworth had no wit, and wit is the predominant element in Pope. Wordsworth deals with the verities of life, Pope with the conventional moralities of society; Wordsworth lived in the eye of nature, Pope in the eye of men ; Wordsworth was a greater poet than artist, Pope, a consummate artist, seldom rises to a place in the first rank of poets; Wordsworth, self-contained and self-sufficient, maintained his poetical faith heedless of opposition; Pope had no faith other than that accepted by his age. It is not difficult to understand how the zeal of converts to the new creed should have led them to treat Pope with scorn, nor why some of the leading advocates of a new order in poetry were unable to appreciate his genius. Thus Southey told Rogers that he had read Spenser through

about thirty times, and that he could not read Pope through once. If Southey, instead of neglecting Pope, had studied him with the care he deserves, it might have proved of essential service to him as a poet. His poetry, which he believed would crown his name with imperishable glory, notwithstanding many high qualities, is already neglected, or known only to a few omnivorous readers, and we remember Southey chiefly as a prose writer. Pope, despised for a time, and as Dr. Chalmers observed, "almost never heard of," is once more placed by universal consent amongst the peers of literature. The House of Fame, said Swift, "is so full, that there is no room for above one or two at most, in an age, through the whole world." But, crowded though the House may be, there can be little doubt that these friends and incomparable satirists will retain a place in it.

In spite, then, of the influences at work during the earlier years of this century tending to lessen the poetical fame of Pope, his reputation has grown, and is still growing. Fresh knowledge has been gained, new editions of his works published, new biographies written, and some of the ablest writers and critics. of our time have declared, in no coldly measured language, their unshaken fealty to this illustrious poet. St. Beuve has done this, so has Mr. Lowell,

so has Mr. Ruskin, who, in his Lectures on Art, declares his conviction that Pope is one of the most accomplished artists in literature, and adds

"Putting Shakespeare aside, as rather the world's than ours, I hold Pope to be the most perfect representative we have since Chaucer of the true English mind, and I think the 'Dunciad' is the most absolutely chiselled and monumental work 'exacted' in our country. You will find as you study Pope that he has expressed for you in the strictest language and within the briefest limits, every law of art, of criticism, of economy, of policy, and finally of a benevolence, humble, rational, and resigned, contented with its allotted share of life, and trusting the problem of its salvation to Him in whose hands lies that of the universe."

Mr. Ruskin's criticism may be open to discussion, but his generous praise of Pope is one proof among many, almost equally significant, that our great satirist, notwithstanding all his faults and poetical shortcomings, has not lost his savour with those who are best qualified to estimate his genius. In literature, as in theology, the virtues of toleration and comprehension are better understood nowa-days than in any former period. We do not hate a man, or hold him in contempt, because he differs from us in politics or creed. The warmest enthusiast for Spenser, Keats, and Shelley has but a narrow judgment of poetry if he cannot also admire the sonorous verse of Dryden, or the consummate

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