Изображения страниц

But, as for the ball-room elves, the sylphs of the “Rape of the Lock," Pope's Zephyrettas and Momentillas, Brillantes and Crispissas, it is essential artifice: they are a sort of brocade-and-hooped fairies; there is no nature, no life in them.

The satirical poems of Pope show great powers in that department of poetry. His satire is a weapon of greater keenness and polish but less weight than Dryden's. The famous character of Addison is an admirable specimen of Pope's best satirical discrimination and skill :

“ Peace to all such! But were there one whose fires
True genius kindles and fair fame inspires,
Bless'd with each talent and each heart to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease, -
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne;
View him with scornful yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caused himself to rise ;
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike ;
First hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserved to blame or to commend,-
A timorous foe, and a suspicious friend;
Dreading e'en fools, by flatterers besieged,
And so obliging that he ne'er obliged ;
Like Cato, gives his little senate laws,
And sits attentive to his own applause ;
While wits and templars every sentence raise,
And wonder with a foolish face of praise :-
Who but must laugh if such a man there be ?

Who would not weep if Atticus were he ?"

passage shows Pope's talent for satire to better advantage, it seems to me, than any of his bitter and vehement invectives or the witty sarcasm which abounds in the “Dunciad.”

The reputation of Pope has been considerable as a philosophic and moral poet. His philosophic poems are the “Essay on Criticism ” and the “Essay on Man," with the supplementary essays. The former was a youthful production with but a small proportion of imaginative spirit, having been first written in prose and then translated into verse. It is a poem which supplies frequent quotations of commonplace truisms in metre, conveniently remembered; such as

“ A little learning is a dangerous thing:

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." The “Essay on Man” is a more elaborate metaphysical poem, with



a high design and a comprehensive scope,

---a system of ethics deduced from considerations of the nature and state of man in his various relations. To criticise the execution of this plan and measure its consistency with Christian philosophy cannot now be attempted. Let me only remark, I find it impossible, in reading the poem, to divest my mind of the recollection of the source of the philosophical views to which Pope gave the popularity of verse. By whom was the design of the poem prompted ? by whom its theory and arguments dictated ? to whom was it dedicated ? and whose praises are interwoven with it as the author's “friend,” his "genius," "master of the poet and the song,” his “guide and philosopher"? To Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke! And who and what was Lord Bolingbroke? He was one whose name was most prominent in both the literary and political circles of society during the reign of Queen Anne and the first of the Brunswick race of English kings. His youth had been severely trained under a preceptor whom he afterwards sneeringly styles a puritanical parson who made, one hundred and nineteen sermons on the 119th Psalm. His early manhood recoiled into the excesses of a libertine ; he became a sceptic, priding himself upon the sufficiency of an infidel philosophy; and, when political reverse cast him down from the high place of power and honours into exile and disgrace, he boastfully proclaimed that virtue could find a home on any soil. But his philosophy did not avail him : he pined in a foreign land, a miserable outcast, craving his lost influence and station. The mind of Pope dwelt in the shadow of Bolingbroke's. Now, how could it, thus overshadowed, the light of revelation thus intercepted by the dark and restless leaves of the poisonous tree of a faithless philosophy,-"philosophy falsely so called,”—how could it have other than a stinted growth ? The whole body of the “Essay on Man” was Bolingbroke's; and Pope's function was to give it the outward garb of verse,--to give it wings to fly into hearts it never otherwise would have reached. It is utterly impossible to reconcile the notion of Pope's being an author of an exalted and powerful genius, with the mere ministerial relation in which he was content and happy to stand to Bolingbroke, and such a man who well earned the epithet given in Shakspeare to an earlier one of the same name,-"the cankered Bolingbroke." The poet worshipped the philosopher as his genius :-yes, but unhappily the genius was but a ministering spirit of evil. Like Satan close at the ear of Eve, the infidel was at the poet's side,

“Assaying by his devilish art to reach
The organs of his fancy."



When the consistency of the reasoning in Pope's poem with Revela tion was questioned, I know that strong men, Warburton among them, were ready to indicate its orthodoxy; but I greatly fear there was something in the constitution of Pope's mind which fitted it for the reception of the seeds of Bolingbroke's philosophy. How far the poet was a dutiful child of the Roman Catholic Church I cannot undertake to judge; but a strange kind of faith it must have been when such a sentiment as this passed between him and his noble friend. In Bolingbroke's elaborate letter to Pope, he says, “You quoted to me once, with great applause, an apophthegm :- Where mystery begins, religion

What a poor thing would religion be if its depths were shallows to be sounded by the scant line of such philosophy as Bolingbroke's! It is just to add that Pope did not himself realize the full extent of the principles he was thus taught; and I can well believe there was lurking in Bolingbroke's callous heart the infidel scorn at the poet's deluded innocence, beholding him swallowing the poison un

Whatever interpretation may be put on the poem to reconcile it with Revelation, certain it is that it contains nothing to which Bolingbroke, infidel as he was, could not have given his whole consent. What but the deistical fallacy of the sufficiency of natural religion, as it is called, and the equally sophistical sentiment of a spurious liberality, is in these lines ?

“Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,

But looks through nature up to nature's God.” Or, again, how unsound are those lines so often quoted with unthinking approval !

“For forms of government let fools contest

Whate'er is best administer'd is best.
For modes of faith let senseless zealots fight;

He can't be wrong whose life is in the right.” As if the administration of a government did not greatly depend upon its form; as if the rectitude of life did not depend on its faith.

One great fault in the constitution of Pope's mind was the excess of a dangerous element :-the proneness to satire. It is dangerous in any mind, -man's or woman's,—the love of saying disagreeable things, the small shafts of which some people always carry their quiver full,-the tendency to criticise, to detect faults; it is dangerous above all to the poet, for it lowers the tone of his enthusiasm, by drawing his thoughts away from the grand and good and beautiful. In any one-poet or other --it brings its own penalty; for it closes at last many sources of pure enjoyment, sacrificing the happiness of delight to the poor pleasure of

[ocr errors]



every one

critical acuteness. In the worst moral character which Shakspeare has created, he has made the disproportionate excess of satirical temper a large element. “I am nothing,” exclaims Iago, “if not critical.” Throughout Pope's poems runs an almost uninterrupted vein of satire in some of its forms: it has penetrated even the epitaphs he has written. He scarcely ever touches the character of woman without reproach, some expression of unmanly contempt or direct insult. How different from that lofty, chastened sentiment of admiration and love which breathes on the pages


of our truly great poets! In this, as in other respects, what men, what perfect gentlemen, they were ! I say this not hy way of gallantry, but because I have not the least doubt that it is an element in the true poetic character. Observation on the chief English poets would verify it as a fact; and, if there was time, I believe I could state the theory of it. But, passing that by, Pope seems to have had no correct appreciation of female character. The only woman towards whom he ever entertained anything approaching a tender passion was, indeed, more of a man than a woman,-Lady Mary Wortley Montague. The text of his celebrated epistle on the character . of women was, —

“ Most women have no characters at all,”–

a piece of sarcasm the sting of which has been admirably extracted by one who was as full of gentleness of heart as of genius,—the late Mr. Coleridge. “ Most women have no characters at all,' said Pope, and meant it for satire. Shakspeare, who knew men and women much better, saw that it, in fact, was the perfection of women to be characterless, as Desdemona and Ophelia.”

I am not a frequent reader of Pope's poetry, for the simple reason that I am not an earnest admirer of it: as this lecture has probably shown, my heart is not in it. I will say with all candour, that I have had difficulty in duly appreciating it in close contrast with the superior poetry that has gone before. While preparing this lecture, I have chanced to light upon some notes made several years ago, after reading Pope's poems, and amidst a variety of very crude and puerile criticism I find one expression which, full as it is of boyish fervour, is yet not inappropriate to my more recent examination of the same poetry. The words were simply these :-—“I cannot raise my admiration of Pope very high, because I have just come hot from Milton.”

A short space, I believe, remains before I reach the verge to which I venture to tax your patience. The injurious influence of Pope's poetry in enfeebling English poetry, confirmed as it was by that very

exceptionable book of its kind, Dr. Johnson's “Lives of the Poets," and the first signs of the gradual regeneration of imaginative literature in the latter part of the century, are subjects I must seek some opportunity to notice in a subsequent lecture. In that regeneration no one shared more largely than William Cowper,

-a true poet, well inspired and well disciplined by the study of one of the chief masters of English song.

I had it in my heart to examine with you Cowper's. whole career with affectionate attention; but the limits of my course will not permit more than a few allusions, which, I fear, will be as unsatisfactory to to you as, surely, they are to myself. His story, however, is a familiar one; his poetry, closely interwoven with it, is familiar too. The great value of Cowper's poetry consists in its departure from the French school of English verse. Milton was his youthful, his life-long admiration and model :

“ Then Milton had indeed a poet's charms :

New to my taste, his Paradise surpass'd
The struggling efforts of my boyish tongue
To speak its excellence. I danced for joy.
I marvell’d much that, at so ripe an age
As twice seven years, his beauties had then first
Engaged my wonder, and, admiring still
And still admiring, with regret supposed

The joy half lost because not sooner found.” Cowper's early writings were love-verses, meant only for the eye of his fair cousin, who had won his heart and gave her own in return, though they were doomed soon to be parted for ever during their long lives. The mysterious malady which during fifty years was the affliction of his life came on in prime manhood. It would have a fearful interest to trace its progress from its first intimations, and the fitful, selffrustrating attempt at suicide, to his residence in a madhouse, and the several relapses in after-years. It might be done without the wantonness of holding “vain dalliance with the misery even of the dead;” but it must suffice to say that it was insanity in its most appalling form, — utter hopelessness of the salvation of his soul,—the monomania of the desperate dread of eternal misery. In the very tumult of his first attack he describes his own condition in a few verses, the most agonized, probably, that ever fell from poet's pen; some of them too distressing to be repeated; the wildness increased by the Sapphic measure, strange in English verse :-

“Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,

Scarce can endure delay for execution,-
Wait with impatient readiness to seize my

Soul in a moment.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »