« VorigeDoorgaan »
" While many a merry tale, and many a song,
Cheered the rough road, we wished the rough road 101g.
We have now surely lost much of the delay and much of the rapidity. But, to show how little the greatest master of numbers can fix the principles of representative harmony,
it will be sufficient to remark that the poet who tells us that
" When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow:
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main;" when he had enjoyed for about thirty years the praise of Camilla's lightness of foot, he tried another experiment upon sound and time, and produced this memorable triplet
“ Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
Here are the swiftness of the rapid race, and the march of slow-paced majesty, exhibited by the same poet in the same sequence of syllables, except that the exact prosodist will find the line of swiftness by one time longer than that of tardiness. Beauties of this kind are commonly fancied, and, when real, are technical and nugatory, not to be rejected and not to be solicited.
To the praises which have been accumulated on the “ Rape of the Lock” by readers of every class, from the critic to the waiting-maid, it is difficult to make any addition. Of that which is universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions, let it rather be now inquired from what sources the power of pleasing is derived. Dr. Warburton, who excelled in critical perspicacity,
has remarked that the preternatural agents are very happily adapted to the purposes of the poem. The heathen deities can no longer gain attention; we should have turned away from a contest between Venus and Diana. The employment of allegorical persons always excites conviction of its own absurdity; they may produce effects, but cannot conduct actions; when the phantom is put in motion it dissolves ; thus Discord may raise a mutiny, but Discord cannot conduct a march nor besiege a town. Pope brought in view a new race of beings, with powers and passions proportionate to their operation. The Sylphs and Gnomes act at the toilet and the tea-table what more terrific and more powerful phantoms perform on the stormy ocean or the field of battle : they give their proper help and do their proper mischief. Pope is said, by an objector, not to have been the inventor of this petty notion, a charge which might with more justice have been brought against the author of the Iliad,” who doubtless adopted the religious system of his country; for what is there but the names of his agents which Pope has not invented ? Has he not assigned them characters and operations never heard of before ? Has he not, at least, given them their first poetical existence? If this is not sufficient to denominate his work original, nothing original ever can be written.
In this work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author. New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new. A race of aërial people never heard of before is presented to us in manner so clear and easy that the reader seeks for no further information, but immediately mingles with his new acquaintance, adopts their interests, and attends their pursuits, loves a Sylph, and detests a Gnome. That familiar things are made new every paragraph will prove. The subject of the poem is an event below the
common incidents of common life; nothing real is intro. duced that is not seen so often as to be no longer regarded ; yet the whole detail of a female day is here brought before us, invested with so much art of decoration that, though nothing is disguised, everything is striking, and we feel all the appetite of curiosity for that from which we have a thousand times turned fastidiously away.
The purpose of the poet is, as he tells us, to laugh at " the little unguarded follies of the female sex.” It is therefore without justice that Dennis charges the “Rape of the Lock” with the want of a moral, and for that reason sets it below the “Lutrin,” which exposes the pride and discord of the clergy. Perhaps neither Pope nor Boileau has made the world much better than he found it; but if they had both succeeded, it were easy to tell who would have deserved most from public gratitude. The freaks, and humours, and spleen, and vanity of women as they embroil families in discord, and fill houses with disquiet, do more to obstruct the happiness of life in a year than the ambition of the clergy in many centuries. It has been well observed that the misery of man proceeds not from any single crush of overwhelming evil, but from small vexations continually repeated. It is remarked by Dennis, likewise, that the machinery is superfluous ; that, by all the bustle of pre. ternatural operation, the main event is neither hastened nor retarded. To this charge an efficacious answer is not easily made. The Sylphs cannot be said to help or oppose ; and it must be allowed to imply some want of art that their power has not been sufficiently intermingled with the action. Other parts may likewise be charged with want of connection—the game at ombre might be spared; but if the lady had lost her hair while she was intent upon her cards it might have been inferred that those who are too fond of play will
be in danger of neglecting more important interests. Those, perhaps, are faults, but what are such faults to so much excellence !
The Epistle of “Eloise to Abelard." is one of the most happy productions of human wit ; the subject is so judiciously chosen that it would be difficult in turning over the annals of the world to find another which so many circumstances concur to recommend. We regularly interest ourselves most in the fortune of those who most deserve our notice. Abelard and Eloise were conspicuous in their days for eminence of merit. The heart naturally loves truth. The adventures and misfortunes of this illustrious pair are known from undisputed history. Their fate does not leave the mind in hopeless dejection, for they both found quiet and consolation in retirement and piety. So new and so affecting is their story that it supersedes invention, and imagination ranges at full liberty without straggling into scenes of fable. The story thus skilfully adopted has been diligently improved. Pope has left nothing behind him which seems more the effect of studious perseverance and laborious revisal. Here is particularly observable the curiosa felicitas, a fruitful soil and careful cultivation. Here is no crudeness of sense nor asperity of language. The sources from which sentiments which have so much vigour and efficacy have been drawn are shown to be the mystic writers by the learned author of the " Essays on the Life and Writings of Pope," a book which teaches how the brow of Criticism may be smoothed, and how she may be enabled, with all her severity, to attract and to delight.
The train of my disquisition has now conducted me to that poetical wonder, the translation of the “Iliad," a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal. To the Greeks translation was almost unknown ; it was totally unknown to the inhabitants of Greece.
They had no recourse to the barbarians for poetical beauties, but sought for everything in Homer, where, indeed, there is but little which they might not find. The Italians have been very diligent translators, but I can hear of no version, unless, perhaps, Anguillara's " Ovid” may be excepted, which is read with eagerness. The “Iliad” of Salvini every reader may discover to be punctiliously exact; but it seems to be the work of a linguist skilfully pedantic ; and his countrymen, the proper judges of its power to please, reject it with disgust. Their predecessors, the Romans, have left some specimens of translation behind them, and that employment must have had some credit in which Tully and Germanicus engaged ; but unless we suppose, what is perhaps true, that the plays of Terence were versions of Menander, nothing translated seems ever to have risen to high reputation. The French in the meridian hour of their learning were very laudably industrious to enrich their own language with the wisdom of the ancients ; but found themselves reduced by whatever necessity to turn the Greek and Roman poetry into prose. Whoever could read an author could translate him. From such rivals little can be feared.
The chief help of Pope in this audacious undertaking was drawn from the versions of Dryden. Virgil had borrowed much of his imagery from Homer ; and part of the debt was now paid by his translator. Pope searched the pages of Dryden for happy combinations of heroic diction, but it will not be denied that he added much to what he found. He cultivated our language with so much diligence and art, that he has left in his “Homer" a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version may be said to have tuned the English tongue ; for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody. Such a series of lines, so elaborately corrected, and so sweetly modulated, took