Alexander Pope’s poetry is an unmistakable challenge to the post-Romantic sensibilities of the twentieth century reader. John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard,” seems entirely contradicted by the public and topical voice that characterizes the epistles, satires, and philosophic exordiums of Pope. The language of introspective reverie that poets, from the nineteenth century on, cultivate in lonely self-communion among the bowers of a refined aestheticism could not be further removed from the racy, tough, and contentious idiom of Pope. That is not to say that Pope’s language is devoid of sculptured phrases or chiseled locutions; on the contrary, his compositions are exquisitely wrought and develop with an inevitability that makes Pope, after William Shakespeare, the most quoted poet in the English language. Following the translation of the Iliad, however, Pope’s works became increasingly didactic and satirical in nature and engaged in topical assaults on the foibles, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings that characterized the literary and political arena during the reigns of Anne and George II. The astonishing thing is that these topical satires of literary hacks long since forgotten and social customs consigned to oblivion, touch, time and again, upon that which is enduring and universal in the moral being of humanity. The literary battles and political machinations that gave occasion to Pope’s vitriolic utterances may be forgotten, but the integrity with which Pope affirmed the centrality of letters, the tempering spirit of humanism, the need for standards, and the cultivation of reverence as indispensable ingredients of a just and balanced society, retains its relevance in the broken world of the twentieth century.
Like Vergil, Pope began as a writer of pastorals; his first poems, composed when he was sixteen, are delicate evocations of an idyllic world of shepherds and shepherdesses poised among settings reminiscent of François Boucher and Jean Fragonard. These highly stylized exercises won for him the accolades of contemporary critics and gave him the confidence to essay the next task that tradition prescribed for the developing poet: the epic. Pope’s translation of the Iliad, the first books of which appeared in 1715, was a watershed in his poetic career. Though Pope had already written poems that prefigure his later orientation as a satirist, it was the publication of the Iliad that triggered the wholly irrational and unexpected assault on Pope’s life, family, writings, and physiognomy by his political enemies and rivals to poetic fame. These attacks diverted Pope from the musings of Windsor Forest, the perorations of An Essay on Criticism, and the witticisms of The Rape of the Lock, and obliged him, to paraphrase a Nobel laureate, “to grab his century by the throat.” After 1719, Pope’s career is notable for the increasing venom of his pen and the sustained brilliance of his polemic.
An Essay on Criticism
Pope’s first important utterance gives us direct access to the critical values of the Augustans and remains the best and most compendious statement of a poetic tradition that extends from Horace to Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. Indeed, as a distillation of neoclassical attitudes, Pope’s An Essay on Criticism is without a peer. The critical assumptions on which the poem is based could not be further removed from the splintered aesthetics and boneless relativism of the present: As a statement of poetic intention and practice, it provides a necessary corrective to the farrago of contradictions that characterize the contemporary critical scene. Pope vigorously attacks the notion that taste is a purely subjective matter, arguing that a deterioration in aesthetic values is both a symptom and a portent of a general disequilibrium in the moral being of the individual and the political fabric of society. The poem’s controlling symbol is the sun—an emblem of universal reason and light whose rays are an expression of the original creative word, or logos. Individual taste is evaluated from the perspective of this light-giving word, which is identified in the poem as “Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,/ One clear, unchanged, and universal light.” Though individual judgments may differ, they may and should be regulated—as watches by the sun—in accordance with objective standards of value and taste. Thus, the rules that govern the composition of poetry are not arbitrary inventions, but expressions of the natural law of measure and restraint: “Those Rules of old discovered, not devised/ Are nature still, but Nature methodized;/ Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained/ By the same laws which first herself ordained.”
The first duty of a poet and a critic, then, is to recognize the law of human limit, and to balance individual judgments by constant and circumspect reference to a hierarchy of inherited values. Pope does not recommend the self-abnegation of the poet in the face of his predecessors, but rather his need to adapt to his own time those values that inform ancients and moderns alike and are of continued relevance because their source is eternal and their origin beyond the vagaries of individual taste. Still, Pope maintains that the success of a composition must be estimated by the value and significance of the poet’s purpose and the artistic integrity with which that purpose is fulfilled, rather than by arbitrary and invidious comparisons between works of antithetical spirit and intention. In this regard, “Pegasus, a near way to take,/ May boldly deviate from the common track;/ From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,/ And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.”
There is, however, one important qualification to this expansionist poetics. Namely, that although the poet’s deviations may elude the letter of aesthetic law, they must not violate the spirit of that law: “Moderns, beware! or if you must offend/ Against the precept ne’er transgress its end.” As Pope argues at the opening of Part 2 of An Essay on Criticism, the poet and the critic must never allow themselves to become victims of pride or to equate the spark of their peculiar talents or insights with the all-embracing splendors of the eternal logos. Poets and critics of lesser rank, according to Pope, allow their obsession with the parts of a composition to take precedence over their comprehension of its total design. An efflorescence of decorative detail in a poet and a pedantic and small-minded preoccupation with minutiae in a critic are unmistakable indications of debilitated sensibility and false judgment: “But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,/ Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon.” To value sound over sense, expression over content, nuance over theme, is to sacrifice instruction to delight and to worship the dead letter at the expense of the living spirit.
Furthermore, the prosody of a poetic composition should be judged by the following criteria: “’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,/ The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Pope crystallizes this point in a series of couplets rich in verbal pyrotechnics. The lines sing, strain, limp, or lilt in accordance with the action described:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows:But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar:When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,The line too labours, and the words move slow;Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Here, as so often, the restraint of the couplet inspires Pope to rhythmic feats that make a game of art and bear witness to his own adage: “The winged courser, like the generous horse/ Shows most true mettle when you check his force.”
After attacking the patronage system and the proclivity of critics to celebrate poets of superior social rank while denigrating those genuine talents who arouse jealousy and spite, Pope goes on to affirm that, in their ultimate issues, literary, social, and moral values are mutually interdependent. A vacillating and fickle critic inconstant in his service to the muse is thus compared to a degenerate amorist who abandons the lawful embraces of his wife for the specious thrills of a strumpet. Constipated scribblers who “Strain out the last droppings of their sense/ And rhyme with all the rage of Impotence,” and Restoration rakes who combine “Dulness with Obscenity . . ./ As shameful sure as Impotence in love,” underscore Pope’s sense that larger issues of decorum, decency, and health are involved in questions of literary tact. For Pope, the authentic poet and critic is honest and circumspect, capable of elasticity in his judgment but constrained by nature and common sense. He does not neglect the rigors of composition in a false straining for effect nor abandon moral and metaphysical principles to flatter public taste. Pope never deserted the values adduced in An Essay on Criticism, and the poem may be profitably used as a yardstick to measure the underlying integrity of Pope’s poetic vision and the vigilance with which he applied it to the literary and cultural aberrations of his age.
An Essay on Criticism was followed by Windsor Forest and The Rape of the Lock; the former poem is an expression of unity in diversity in which the ecological balance of Windsor Forest is perceived as analogous to the balanced and harmonious development of the British realm following the Peace of Utrecht. Pope’s perception of a concordant cosmic design maintained by the mutual subservience of antagonistic forces adumbrates the more compelling philosophic arguments of An Essay on Man.
The Rape of the Lock
Pope’s most brilliant achievement in his early work is, of course, The Rape of the Lock. Its sophisticated humor and virtuoso technique are unsurpassed. In this genial spoof of a society abandoned to the pursuit of spurious values, Pope avoids the extreme indignation of his later satires. Instead, he takes an impish delight in the conventions and rituals that are the object of his gentle mockery. Though Belinda and the Baron may be self-regarding fools, the poet obviously relishes their behavior.
The poem itself derives from an actual quarrel between Arabella Fermour and her suitor, Lord Petre. At the request of his friend, John Caryll, Pope undertook the poem, hoping, through his raillery, to laugh the young beau and belle into common sense. Not surprisingly, the tempers of Miss Fermour and Lord Petre were not mollified when, in consequence of Pope’s poem, their misadventures became the talk of the town.
Pope’s principal strategy in this mock-epic is to stand the conventions of epic poetry on their heads. By counterpointing the dramatic situations and epic conventions of Homer, Vergil, and Milton with the fatuities of a vain coquette and a foppish lord, Pope exposes the pretensions and trivialities of the eighteenth century upper class. Hence, the battle for Troy, Latium, or Heaven becomes a bathetic war between the genders; the celestial powers of the Iliad or Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) are reduced to diminutive sylphs; and the ferocious appetites of the Homeric warrior are replaced by the pampered palates of a degenerate aristocracy. As in An Essay on Criticism, the controlling metaphor is the sun. Belinda’s propensity to arrogate to herself the divine attributes of that celestial orb reflects the expansive self-conceit permeating her entire culture. As they are over and over in Belinda’s world, the finite preoccupations of pleasure, seduction, flirtation, and gossip are accorded an infinite status. The worship of these things becomes, in consequence, obsessional and demoniac. Thus the sylphs who whisper in Belinda’s ear on the eve of her molestation by the Baron recall the seductive whispers of Milton’s Satan in the ear of the sleeping Eve. Moreover, as Belinda sits before her boudoir mirror and allows herself to be transformed by the ministrations of her attendant sylphs, the religious connotations of Pope’s imagery underscore the debasement of true worship into self-worship through “the sacred rites of Pride.” Still, Pope’s condemnation of Belinda’s world is not unequivocal: The radiance, iridescence, and bejeweled splendor of this perfumed society retain a vestige of that divine light that the society caricatures or distorts.
In the last analysis, however, Belinda’s chastity is not a positive virtue but an expression of vanity. Her aloofness is a deliberate and insulting challenge to her suitors, whose numbers swell as she remains unfixed...
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