« ElőzőTovább »
Lecture the Twenty-Sixth.
ALEXANDER POPE-JOHN GAY-SIR SAMUEL GARTH-SIR RICHARD BLACKMORE -ANNE, COUNTESS OF WINCHELSIA-MATTHEW GREEN-ALLAN RAMSAY.
MONTEMPORARY with the poets who occupied our attention during the last two lectures, and united in friendship and in fame with Swift, one of the most conspicuous of them, was Alexander Pope-a poet, the ease, fluency, and accuracy of whose numbers, has placed him at the very head of the class to which he belongs.
ALEXANDER POPE was the son of a respectable draper, and was born in the city of London, on the twenty-second of May, 1688. Being, from his infancy, of a very delicate frame, he was taught to read at home, by a maiden aunt, and he learned to write by imitating the letters of the little school manual from which he had learned them, and the other primary works that the studies of his childhood placed in his hands. His father, having acquired an independent fortune, retired to Binfield, in Windsor Forest, and as he belonged to the Roman Church, the future poet was placed under the care of one Taverner, the family priest, by whom he was taught the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages, at the same time. From Taverner's care, Pope was removed to a Catholic seminary at Twyford, near Winchester, and thence to a school near Hyde Park Corner; but he must have been very unfortunate in his teachers, or of uncertain temper; for before he had reached the twelfth year of his age, he quit school altogether, returned to his father's house, and resolved to educate himself.
But we are not to infer that he was inattentive to his studies; for the whole of his early life was that of a severe student. He was a poet in his childhood; and in reference to this circumstance he remarks
As yet a child, and all unknown to fame,
I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.
Pope early read the works of Spenser, Waller, and Dryden, but he greatly preferred those of the latter; and while a mere boy prevailed upon a friend to accompany him to a celebrated coffee-house, which Dryden was in
the habit of frequenting, that he might have the gratification of seeing an author whom he so enthusiastically admired. His first serious poetic efforts were in the epic and the dramatic way; but a little reflection convinced him that these productions were not worth preserving, and he therefore destroyed them. In 1704, when only sixteen years of age, he wrote his Pastorals and his Imitations of Chaucer. These performances placed him before his friends as an author, and introduced him to the acquaintance of the most eminent literary men of the day. The 'Pastorals' were confined to private circulation until 1709, when they were published in the same volume with those of Philips.
In 1711, when Pope was in the twenty-third year of his age, appeared his Essay on Criticism, though it is said to have been written two years earlier. This is, perhaps, the finest piece of argumentative poetry in the English language. The maturity of judgment that it exhibits is truly wonderful. The author's style was now thoroughly formed. His versification was based upon that of Dryden, but he gave to the heroic couplet a peculiar grace and melody as will at once be perceived from the following passage:
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
She gives in large recruits of needful Pride!
What wants in blood and spirits, swell'd with wind
And fills up all the mighty void of sense.
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last
The Essay on Criticism' was soon followed by the Rape of the Lock, which is, in the judgment of Dr. Johnson, the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful, of all Pope's compositions.' The circumstance which elicited the poem was the following:-Lord Petre, the lover of a celebrated beauty, Miss Arabella Fermor, playfully stole a lock of her hair -an act that assumed so offensive an aspect to the lady and her friends that it caused an estrangement between the families. Pope's design in writing his poem was to turn the whole affair into a jest, 'and laugh them together again; but though he did not succeed in effecting that object, yet, by the effort, he added greatly to his own reputation.
The machinery of the poem, founded upon the Rosicrucian theory, that the elements are inhabited by spirits, which they called sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders, was added at the suggestion of Dr. Garth and some other of his friends. Sylphs had been previously mentioned as invisible attendants on the fair, and the idea is shadowed forth in Shakspeare's 'Ariel,' and the amusements of the fairies in the 'Midsummer Nights' Dream.' But Pope has blended the most delicate satire with the most lively fancy, and produced the most brilliant mock-heroic-poem ever written. The following descriptions of the lady's toilet, and of Belinda are fair specimens of the work :
And now, unvailed, the toilet stands displayed,
First, robed in white, the nymph intent adores,
DESCRIPTION OF BELINDA.
Not with more glories, in the ethereal plain,
Look on her face and you'll forget them all.
This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
The Temple of Fame, and the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady, were next published; and in 1713, appeared his Windsor Forest, which was chiefly written as early as 1704. The latter poem was evidently founded on Denham's 'Cooper's Hill,' but it far excels the original. Pope was, properly speaking, no mere descriptive poet. He made the picturesque subservient to views of historical events, or to sketches of life and morals. Most of the Windsor Forest' being composed in his earlier years, amid the shades of those noble woods which he selected for the theme of his verse, there is, in this poem, a greater display of sympathy with external objects, than in any of his other works. The lawns and glades of the forest, the russet plains, and blue hills, and even the 'purple dyes of the wild heath,' had deeply impressed his young imagination. His account of the dying pheasant is a finished picture :
See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs