Alexander Pope As a Moralist
[This is taken from Leslie Stephens’ Hours in a Library.]
The vitality of Pope’s writings, or at least of certain fragments of them, is remarkable. Few reputations have been exposed to such perils at the hands of open enemies or of imprudent friends. In his lifetime ‘the wasp of Twickenham’ could sting through a sevenfold covering of pride or stupidity. Lady Mary and Lord Hervey writhed and retaliated with little more success than the poor denizens of Grub Street. But it is more remarkable that Pope seems to be stinging well into the second century after his death. His writings resemble those fireworks which, after they have fallen to the ground and been apparently quenched, suddenly break out again into sputtering explosions. The waters of a literary revolution have passed over him without putting him out. Though much of his poetry has ceased to interest us, so many of his brilliant couplets still survive that probably no dead writer, with the solitary exception of Shakespeare, is more frequently quoted at the present day. It is in vain that he is abused, ridiculed, and often declared to be no poet at all. The school of Wordsworth regarded him as the embodiment of the corrupting influence in English poetry; and it is only of late that we are beginning to aim at a more catholic spirit in literary criticism. It is not our business simply to revile or to extol the ideals of our ancestors, but to try to understand them. The passionate partisanship of militant schools is pardonable in the apostles of a new creed, but when the struggle is over we must aim at saner judgments. Byron was impelled by motives other than the purely judicial when he declared Pope to be the ‘great moral poet of all times, of all climes, of all feelings, and of all stages of existence;’ and it is not less characteristic that Byron was at the same time helping to dethrone the idol before which he prostrated himself.
A critic whose judgments, however wayward, are always keen and original, has more recently spoken of Pope in terms which recall Byron’s enthusiasm. ‘Pope,’ says Mr. Ruskin, in one of his Oxford lectures, ‘is the most perfect representative we have since Chaucer of the true English mind;’ and he adds that his hearers will find, as they study Pope, that he has expressed for them, ‘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 hand lies that of the universe.’ These remarks are added by way of illustrating the relation of art to morals, and enforcing the great principle that a noble style can only proceed from a sincere heart. ‘You can only learn to speak as these men spake by learning what these men were.’ When we ask impartially what Pope was, we may possibly be inclined to doubt the complete soundness of the eulogy upon his teaching. Meanwhile, however, Byron and Mr. Ruskin agree in holding up Pope as an instance, almost as the typical instance, of that kind of poetry which is directly intended to enforce a lofty morality. Though we can never take either Byron or Mr. Ruskin as the representative of sweet reasonableness, their admiration is some proof that Pope possessed great merits as a poetical interpreter of morals. Without venturing into the wider ocean of poetical criticism, I will endeavour to consider what was the specific element in Pope’s poetry which explains, if it does not justify, this enthusiastic praise.
I shall venture to assume, indeed, that Pope was a genuine poet. Perhaps, as M.Taine thinks, it is a proof of our British grossness that we still admire the ‘Rape of the Lock,’ yet I must agree with most critics that it is admirable after its kind. Pope’s sylphs, as Mr. Elwin says, are legitimate descendants from Shakespeare’s fairies. True, they have entered into rather humiliating bondage. Shakespeare’s Ariel has to fetch the midnight dew from the still-vexed Bermoothes; he delights to fly—
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curl’d clouds—
whereas the ‘humbler province’ of Pope’s Ariel is ‘to tend the fair’—
To steal from rainbows, ere they drop in showers,
A brighter wash; to curl their waving hairs,
Assist their blushes, and inspire their airs.
Nay, oft in dreams invention we bestow
To change a flounce or add a furbelow.
Prospero, threatening Ariel for murmuring, says ‘I will
rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails, until
Thou hast howled away twelve winters.’
The fate threatened to a disobedient sprite in the later poem is that he shall
Be stuff’d in vials, or transfixed with pins,
Or plunged in lakes of bitter washes lie,
Or wedged whole ages in a bodkin’s eye.
Pope’s muse—one may use the old-fashioned word in such a connection—had left the free forest for Will’s Coffee-house, and haunted ladies’ boudoirs instead of the brakes of the enchanted island. Her wings were clogged with ‘gums and pomatums,’ and her ‘thin essence’ had shrunk ‘like a rivel’d flower.’ But a delicate fancy is a delicate fancy still, even when employed about the paraphernalia of modern life; a truth which Byron maintained, though not in an unimpeachable form, in his controversy with Bowles. We sometimes talk as if our ancestors were nothing but hoops and wigs; and forget that they had a fair allowance of human passions. And consequently we are very apt to make a false estimate of the precise nature of that change which fairly entitles us to call Pope’s age prosaic. In showering down our epithets of artificial, sceptical, and utilitarian, we not seldom forget what kind of figure we are ourselves likely to make in the eyes of our own descendants.
Whatever be the position rightly to be assigned to Pope in the British Walhalla, his own theory has been unmistakably expressed. He boasts
That not in fancy’s maze he wandered long,
But stooped to truth and moralised his song.
His theory is compressed into one of the innumerable aphorisms which have to some degree lost their original sharpness of definition, because they have passed, as current coinage, through so many hands.
The proper study of mankind is man.
The saying is in form nearly identical with Goethe’s remark that man is properly the only object which interests man. The two poets, indeed, understood the doctrine in a very different way. Pope’s interpretation strikes the present generation as narrow and mechanical. He would place such limitations upon the sphere of human interest as to exclude, perhaps, the greatest part of what we generally mean by poetry. How much, for example, would have to be suppressed if we sympathised with Pope’s condemnation of the works in which
Pure description holds the place of sense.
Nearly all the works of such poets as Thomson and Cowper would disappear, Wordsworth’s pages would show fearful gaps, and Keats would be in risk of summary suppression. We may doubt whether much would be left of Spenser, from whom both Keats and Pope, like so many other of our poets, drew inspiration in their youth. Fairyland would be deserted, and the poet condemned to working upon ordinary commonplaces in broad daylight. The principle which Pope proclaimed is susceptible of the inverse application. Poetry, as it proves, may rightly concern itself with inanimate nature, with pure description, or with the presentation of lovely symbols not definitely identified with any cut-and-dried saws of moral wisdom; because there is no part of the visible universe to which we have not some relation, and the most ethereal dreams that ever visited a youthful poet ‘on summer eve by haunted stream’ are in some sense reflections of the passions and interests that surround our daily life. Pope, however, as the man more fitted than any other fully to interpret the mind of his own age, inevitably gives a different construction to a very sound maxim. He rightly assumes that man is his proper study; but then by man he means not the genus, but a narrow species of the human being. ‘Man’ means Bolingbroke, and Walpole, and Swift, and Curll, and Theobald; it does not mean man as the product of a long series of generations and part of the great universe of inextricably involved forces. He cannot understand the man of distant ages; Homer is to him not the spontaneous voice of the heroic age, but a clever artist whose gods and heroes are consciously-constructed parts of an artificial ‘machinery.’ Nature has, for him, ceased to be inhabited by sylphs and fairies, except to amuse the fancies of fine ladies and gentlemen, and has not yet received a new interest from the fairy tales of science.
The old ideal of chivalry merely suggests the sneers of Cervantes, or even the buffoonery of Butler’s wit, and has not undergone restoration at the hands of modern romanticists. Politics are not associated in his mind with any great social upheaval, but with a series of petty squabbles for places and pensions, in which bribery is the great moving force. What he means by religion is generally not so much the existence of a divine element in the world as a series of bare metaphysical demonstrations too frigid to produce enthusiasm or to stimulate the imagination. And, therefore, he inevitably interests himself chiefly in what is certainly a perennial source of interest—the passions and thoughts of the men and women immediately related to himself; and it may be remarked, in passing, that if this narrows the range of Pope’s poetry, the error is not so vital as a modern delusion of the opposite kind. Because poetry should not be brought into too close a contact with the prose of daily life, we sometimes seem to think that it must have no relation to daily life at all, and consequently convert it into a mere luxurious dreaming, where the beautiful very speedily degenerates into the pretty or the picturesque. Because poetry need not be always a point-blank fire of moral platitudes, we occasionally declare that there is no connection at all between poetry and morality, and that all art is good which is for the moment agreeable. Such theories must end in reducing all poetry and art to be at best more or less elegant trifling for the amusement of the indolent; and to those who uphold them Pope’s example may be of some use. If he went too far in the direction of identifying poetry with preaching, he was not wrong in assuming that poetry should involve preaching, though by an indirect method. Morality and art are not independent, though not identical. Both, as Mr. Ruskin urges in the passage just quoted, are only admirable when the expression of healthful and noble natures. But, without discussing that thorny problem and certainly without committing myself to an approval of Mr. Ruskin’s solution, I am content to look at it for the time from Pope’s stand-point.
Taking Pope’s view of his poetical office, there remain considerable difficulties in estimating the value of the lesson which he taught with so much energy. The difficulties result both from that element which was common to his contemporaries and from that which was supplied by Pope’s own idiosyncrasies. The commonplaces in which Pope takes such infinite delight have become very stale for us. Assuming their perfect sincerity, we cannot understand how anybody should have thought of enforcing them with such amazing emphasis. We constantly feel a shock like that which surprises the reader of Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ when he finds it asserted, in all the pomp of blank verse, that
Procrastination is the thief of time.
The maxim has rightly been consigned to copy-books. And a great deal of Pope’s moralising is of the same order. We do not want denunciations of misers. Nobody at the present day keeps gold in an old stocking. When we read the observation,
‘Tis strange the miser should his cares employ
To gain the riches he can ne’er enjoy,
we can only reply that we have heard something like it before. In fact, we cannot place ourselves in the position of men at the time when modern society was first definitely emerging from the feudal state, and everybody was sufficiently employed in gossiping about his neighbours. We are perplexed by the extreme interest with which they dwell upon the little series of obvious remarks which have been worked to death by later writers. Pope, for example, is still wondering over the first appearance of one of the most familiar of modern inventions. He exclaims,
Blest paper credit! last and best supply!
That lends corruption lighter wings to fly!
He points out, with an odd superfluity of illustration, that bank-notes enable a man to be bribed much more easily than of old. There is no danger, he says, that a patriot will be exposed by a guinea dropping out of his pocket at the end of an interview with the minister; and he shows how awkward it would be if a statesman had to take his bribes in kind, and his servants should proclaim,
Sir, Spain has sent a thousand jars of oil;
Huge bales of British cloth blockade the door;
A hundred oxen at your levees roar.
This, however, was natural enough when the South Sea scheme was for the first time illustrating the powers and the dangers of extended credit. To us, who are beginning to fit our experience of commercial panics into a scientific theory, the wonder expressed by Pope sounds like the exclamations of a savage over a Tower musket. And in the sphere of morals it is pretty much the same. All those reflections about the little obvious vanities and frivolities of social life which supplied two generations of British essayists, from the ‘Tatler’ to the ‘Lounger,’ with an inexhaustible fund of mild satire, have lost their freshness. Our own modes of life have become so complex by comparison, that we pass over these mere elements to plunge at once into more refined speculations. A modern essayist starts where Addison or Johnson left off. He assumes that his readers know that procrastination is an evil, and tries to gain a little piquancy by paradoxically pointing out the objections to punctuality. Character, of course, becomes more complex, and requires more delicate modes of analysis. Compare, for example, the most delicate of Pope’s delineations with one of Mr. Browning’s elaborate psychological studies. Remember how many pages of acute observation are required to set forth Bishop Blougram’s peculiar phase of worldliness, and then turn to Pope’s descriptions of Addison, or Wharton, or Buckingham. Each of those descriptions is, indeed, a masterpiece in its way; the language is inimitably clear and pointed; but the leading thought is obvious, and leads to no intricate problems. Addison—assuming Pope’s Addison to be the real Addison—might be cold-blooded and jealous; but he had not worked out that elaborate machinery for imposing upon himself and others which is required in a more critical age. He wore a mask, but a mask of simple construction; not one of those complex contrivances of modern invention which are so like the real skin that it requires the acuteness and patience of a scientific observer to detect the difference and point out the nature of the deception. The moral difference between an Addison and a Blougram is as great as the difference between an old stage-coach and a steam-engine, or between the bulls and bears which first received the name in Law’s time and their descendants on the New York Stock Exchange.
If, therefore, Pope gains something in clearness and brilliancy by the comparative simplicity of his art, he loses by the extreme obviousness of its results. We cannot give him credit for being really moved by such platitudes. We have the same feeling as when a modern preacher employs twenty minutes in proving that it is wrong to worship idols of wood and stone. But, unfortunately, there is a reason more peculiar to Pope which damps our sympathy still more decidedly. Recent investigations have strengthened those suspicions of his honesty which were common even amongst his contemporaries. Mr. Elwin was (very excusably) disgusted by the revelations of his hero’s baseness, till his indignation became a painful burden to himself and his readers. Speaking bluntly, indeed, we admit that lying is a vice, and that Pope was in a small way one of the most consummate liars that ever lived. He speaks himself of ‘equivocating pretty genteelly’ in regard to one of his peccadilloes. Pope’s equivocation is to the equivocation of ordinary men what a tropical fern is to the stunted representatives of the same species in England. It grows until the fowls of the air can rest on its branches. His mendacity in short amounts to a monomania. That a man with intensely irritable nerves, and so fragile in constitution that his life might, without exaggeration, be called a ‘long disease,’ should defend himself by the natural weapons of the weak, equivocation and subterfuge, when exposed to the brutal horseplay common in that day, is indeed not surprising. But Pope’s delight in artifice was something unparalleled. He could hardly drink tea without ‘a stratagem,’ or, as Lady Bolingbroke put it, was a politician about cabbages and turnips; and certainly he did not despise the arts known to politicians on a larger stage.
Never, surely, did all the arts of the most skilful diplomacy give rise to a series of intrigues more complex than those which attended the publication of the ‘P. T. Letters.’ An ordinary man says that he is obliged to publish by request of friends, and we regard the transparent device as, at most, a venial offence. But in Pope’s hands this simple trick becomes a complex apparatus of plots within plots, which have only been unravelled by the persevering labours of most industrious literary detectives. The whole story was given for the first time at full length in Mr. Elwin’s edition of Pope, and the revelation borders upon the incredible. How Pope became for a time two men; how in one character he worked upon the wretched Curll through mysterious emissaries until the piratical bookseller undertook to publish the letters already privately printed by Pope himself; how Pope in his other character protested vehemently against the publication and disavowed all complicity in the preparations; how he set the House of Lords in motion to suppress the edition; and how, meanwhile, he took ingenious precautions to frustrate the interference which he provoked; how in the course of these manœuvres his genteel equivocation swelled into lying on the most stupendous scale—all this story, with its various ins and outs, may be now read by those who have the patience. The problem may be suggested to casuists how far the iniquity of a lie should be measured by its immediate purpose, or how far it is aggravated by the enormous mass of superincumbent falsehoods which it inevitably brings in its train. We cannot condemn very seriously the affected coyness which tries to conceal a desire for publication under an apparent yielding to extortion; but we must certainly admit that the stomach of any other human being of whom a record has been preserved would have revolted at the thought of wading through such a waste of falsification to secure so paltry an end. Moreover, this is only one instance, and by no means the worst instance, of Pope’s regular practice in such matters. Almost every publication of his life was attended with some sort of mystification passing into downright falsehood, and, at times, injurious to the character of his dearest friends. We have to add to this all the cases in which Pope attacked his enemies under feigned names and then disavowed his attacks; the malicious misstatements which he tried to propagate in regard to Addison; and we feel it a positive relief when we are able to acquit him, partially at least, of the worst charge of extorting 1,000l. from the Duchess of Marlborough for the suppression of a satirical passage.
Whatever minor pleas may be put forward in extenuation, it certainly cannot be denied that Pope’s practical morality was defective. Genteel equivocation is not one of the Christian graces; and a gentleman convicted at the present day of practices comparable to those in which Pope indulged so freely might find it expedient to take his name off the books of any respectable club. Now, if we take literally Mr. Ruskin’s doctrine that a noble morality must proceed from a noble nature, the inference from Pope’s life to his writings is not satisfactory.
We may, indeed, take it for demonstrated that Pope was not one of those men who can be seen from all points of view. There are corners of his nature which will not bear examination. We cannot compare him with such men as Milton, or Cowper, or Wordsworth, whose lives are the noblest commentary on their works. Rather he is one of the numerous class in whom the excessive sensibility of genius has generated very serious disease. In more modern days we may fancy that his views would have taken a different turn, and that Pope would have belonged to the Satanic school of writers, and instead of lying enormously, have found relief for his irritated nerves in reviling all that is praised by ordinary mankind. But we must hesitate before passing from his acknowledged vices to a summary condemnation of the whole man. Human nature (the remark is not strictly original) is often inconsistent; and, side by side with degrading tendencies, there sometimes lie not only keen powers of intellect, but a genuine love for goodness, benevolence, and even for honesty. Pope is one of those strangely mixed characters which can only be fully delineated by a masterly hand, and Mr. Courthope in the life which concludes the definitive edition of the works has at last performed the task with admirable skill and without too much shrouding his hero’s weaknesses. Meanwhile our pleasure in reading him is much counterbalanced by the suspicion that those pointed aphorisms which he turns out in so admirably polished a form may come only from the lips outwards. Pope, it must be remembered, is essentially a parasitical writer. He was a systematic appropriator—I do not say plagiarist, for the practice seems to be generally commendable—of other men’s thoughts. His brilliant gems have often been found in some obscure writer, and have become valuable by the patient care with which he has polished and mounted them. We doubt their perfect sincerity because, when he is speaking in his own person, we can often prove him to be at best under a curious delusion. Take, for example, the ‘Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,’ which is his most perfect work. Some of the boasts in it are apparently quite justified by the facts. But what are we to say to such a passage as this?—
I was not born for courts or great affairs;
I pay my debts, believe, and say my prayers;
Can sleep without a poem in my head,
Nor know if Dennis be alive or dead.
Admitting his independence, and not inquiring too closely into his prayers, can we forget that the gentleman who could sleep without a poem in his head called up a servant four times in one night of ‘the dreadful winter of Forty’ to supply him with paper, lest he should lose a thought? Or what is the value of a professed indifference to Dennis from the man distinguished beyond all other writers for the bitterness of his resentment against all small critics; who disfigured his best poems by his petty vengeance for old attacks; and who could not refrain from sneering at poor Dennis, even in the Prologue which he condescended to write for the benefit of his dying antagonist? Or, again, one can hardly help smiling at his praises of his own hospitality. The dinner which he promises to his friend is to conclude with—
Cheerful healths (your mistress shall have place),
And, what’s more rare, a poet shall say grace.
The provision made for the ‘cheerful healths,’ as Johnson lets us know, consisted of the remnant of a pint of wine, from which Pope had taken a couple of glasses, divided amongst two guests. There was evidently no danger of excessive conviviality. And then a grace in which Bolingbroke joined could not have been a very impressive ceremony.
Thus, we are always pursued, in reading Pope, by disagreeable misgivings. We don’t know what comes from the heart, and what from the lips: when the real man is speaking, and when we are only listening to old commonplaces skilfully vamped. There is always, if we please, a bad interpretation to be placed upon his finest sentiments. His indignation against the vicious is confused with his hatred of personal enemies; he protests most loudly that he is honest when he is ‘equivocating most genteelly;’ his independence may be called selfishness or avarice; his toleration simple indifference; and even his affection for his friends a decorous fiction, which will never lead him to the slightest sacrifice of his own vanity or comfort. A critic of the highest order is provided with an Ithuriel spear, which discriminates the sham sentiments from the true. As a banker’s clerk can tell a bad coin by its ring on the counter, without need of a testing apparatus, the true critic can instinctively estimate the amount of bullion in Pope’s epigrammatic tinsel. But criticism of this kind, as Pope truly says, is as rare as poetical genius. Humbler writers must be content to take their weights and measures, or, in other words, to test their first impressions, by such external evidence as is available. They must proceed cautiously in these delicate matters, and instead of leaping to the truth by a rapid intuition, patiently enquire what light is thrown upon Pope’s sincerity by the recorded events of his life, and a careful cross-examination of the various witnesses to his character. They must, indeed, keep in mind Mr. Ruskin’s excellent canon—that good fruit, even in moralising, can only be borne by a good tree.
Where Pope has succeeded in casting into enduring form some valuable moral sentiment, we may therefore give him credit for having at least felt it sincerely. If he did not always act upon it, the weakness is not peculiar to Pope. Time, indeed, has partly done the work for us. In Pope, more than in almost any other writer, the grain has sifted itself from the chaff. The jewels have remained after the flimsy embroidery in which they were fixed has fallen into decay. Such a result was natural from his mode of composition. He caught at some inspiration of the moment; he cast it roughly into form; brooded over it; retouched it again and again; and when he had brought it to the very highest polish of which his art was capable, placed it in a pigeon-hole to be fitted, when the opportunity offered, into an appropriate corner of his mosaic-work. We can see him at work, for example, in the passage about Addison and the celebrated concluding couplet. The epigrams in which his poetry abounds have obviously been composed in the same fashion, for that ‘masterpiece of man,’ as South is made to call it in the ‘Dunciad,’ is only produced in perfection when the labour which would have made an ode has been concentrated upon a couple of lines. There is a celebrated recipe for dressing a lark, if we remember rightly, in which the lark is placed inside a snipe, and the snipe in a woodcock, and so on till you come to a turkey, or, if procurable, to an ostrich; then, the mass having been properly stewed, the superincumbent envelopes are all thrown away, and the essences of the whole are supposed to be embodied in the original nucleus. So the perfect epigram, at which Pope is constantly aiming, should be the quintessence of a whole volume of reflection. Such literary cookery, however, implies not only labour, but an unwearied vividness of thought and feeling. The poet must put his soul into the work as well as his artistic power. Thus, if we may take Pope’s most vigorous expressions as an indication of his strongest convictions, and check their conclusions by his personal history and by the general tendency of his writings, we might succeed in putting together something like a satisfactory statement of the moral system which he expressed forcibly because he believed in it sincerely.
Without following the proofs in detail, let us endeavour to give some statement of the result. What, in fact, did Pope learn by his study of man, such as it was? What does he tell us about the character of human beings and their position in the universe which is either original or marked by the freshness of independent thought? Perhaps the most characteristic vein of reflection is that which is embodied in the ‘Dunciad.’ There, at least, we have Pope speaking energetically and sincerely. He really detests, abjures, and abominates as impious and heretical, without a trace of mental reservation, the worship of the great goddess Dulness. The ‘Dunciad’ does not show the quality in which Pope most excels, that which makes his best satires resemble the quintessence of the most brilliant thought of his most brilliant contemporaries. But it has more energy and continuity than most of his other poetry. The ‘Dunciad’ often flows in a continuous stream of eloquence, instead of dribbling out in little jets of epigram. If there are fewer points, there are more frequent gushes of sustained rhetoric. Even when Pope condescends—and he condescends much too often—to pelt his antagonists with mere filth, he does it with a touch of boisterous vigour. He laughs out. He catches something from his patron Swift when he
Laughs and shakes in Rabelais’s easy chair.
His lungs seem to be fuller and his voice to lose for the time its tricks of mincing affectation. Here, indeed, there can be no question of insincerity. Pope’s scorn of folly is to be condemned only so far as it was connected with too bitter a hatred of fools. He has suffered, as Swift foretold, by the insignificance of the enemies against whom he rages with superfluous vehemence. But for Pope, no one in this generation would have heard of Arnall and Moore and Breval and Bezaleel Morris and fifty more ephemeral denizens of Grub Street. The fault is, indeed, inherent in the plan. It is in some degree creditable to Pope that his satire was on the whole justified, so far as it could be justified, by the correctness of his judgment. The only great man whom he has seriously assaulted is Bentley; and to Pope, Bentley was of necessity not the greatest of classical critics, but the tasteless mutilator of Milton, and, as we must perhaps add, the object of the hatred of Pope’s particular friends, Atterbury and Warburton. The misfortune is that the more just his satire, the more perishable is its interest; and if we regard the ‘Dunciad’ simply as an assault upon the vermin who then infested literature, we must consider him as a man who should use a steam-hammer to crack a flea. Unluckily for ourselves, however, it cannot be admitted so easily that Curll and Dennis and the rest had a merely temporary interest. Regarded as types of literary nuisances—and Pope does not condescend in his poetry, though the want is partly supplied in the notes, to indulge in much personal detail—they may be said by cynics to have a more enduring vitality. Of course there is at the present day no such bookseller as Curll, living by piratical invasions of established rights, and pandering to the worst passions of ignorant readers; no writer who could be fitly called, like Concanen,
A cold, long-winded native of the deep,
and fitly sentenced to dive where Fleet Ditch
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames;
and most certainly we must deny the present applicability of the note upon ‘Magazines’ compiled by Pope, or rather by Warburton, for the episcopal bludgeon is perceptible in the prose description. They are not at present ‘the eruption of every miserable scribbler, the scum of every dirty newspaper, or fragments of fragments picked up from every dirty dunghill … equally the disgrace of human wit, morality, decency, and common sense.’ But if the translator of the ‘Dunciad’ into modern phraseology would have some difficulty in finding a head for every cap, there are perhaps some satirical stings which have not quite lost their point. The legitimate drama, so theatrical critics tell us, has not quite shaken off the rivalry of sensational scenery and idiotic burlesque, though possibly we do not produce absurdities equal to that which, as Pope tells us, was actually introduced by Theobald, in which
Nile rises, Heaven descends, and dance on earth
Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jig, a battle and a ball,
Till one wide conflagration swallows all.
There is still facetiousness which reminds us too forcibly that
Gentle Dullness ever loves a joke,
and even sermons, for which we may apologise on the ground that
Dullness is sacred in a sound divine.
Here and there, too, if we may trust certain stern reviewers, there are writers who have learnt the principle that
Index learning turns no student pale,
Yet holds the eel of Science by the tail.
And the first four lines, at least, of the great prophecy at the conclusion of the third book is thought by the enemies of muscular Christianity to be possibly approaching its fulfilment:
Proceed, great days! till learning fly the shore,
Till birch shall blush with noble blood no more,
Till Thames see Eton’s sons for ever play,
Till Westminster’s whole year be holiday,
Till Isis’ elders reel, their pupils sport,
And Alma Mater lies dissolved in Port!
No! So far as we can see, it is still true that
Born a goddess,
Dullness never dies.
Men, we know it on high authority, are still mostly fools. If Pope be in error, it is not so much that his adversary is beneath him, as that she is unassailable by wit or poetry. Weapons of the most ethereal temper spend their keenness in vain against the ‘anarch old’ whose power lies in utter insensibility. It is fighting with a mist, and firing cannon-balls into a mudheap. As well rave against the force of gravitation, or complain that our gross bodies must be nourished by solid food. If, however, we should be rather grateful than otherwise to a man who is sanguine enough to believe that satire can be successful against stupidity, and that Grub Street, if it cannot be exterminated, can at least be lashed into humility, we might perhaps complain that Pope has taken rather too limited a view of the subject. Dulness has other avatars besides the literary. In the last and finest book, Pope attempts to complete his plan by exhibiting the influence of dulness upon theology and science. The huge torpedo benumbs every faculty of the human mind, and paralyses all the Muses, except ‘mad Mathesis,’ which, indeed, does not carry on so internecine a war with the general enemy. The design is commendable, and executed, so far as Pope was on a level with his task, with infinite spirit. But, however excellent the poetry, the logic is defective, and the description of the evil inadequate. Pope has but a vague conception of the mode in which dulness might become the leading force in politics, lower religion till it became a mere cloak for selfishness, and make learning nothing but laborious and pedantic trifling. Had his powers been equal to his goodwill, we might have had a satire far more elevated than anything which he has attempted; for a man must be indeed a dull student of history who does not recognise the vast influence of dulness-worship on the whole period which has intervened between Pope and ourselves. Nay, it may be feared that it will yet be some time before education bills and societies for university extension will have begun to dissipate the evil. A modern satirist, were satire still alive, would find an ample occupation for his talents in a worthy filling out of Pope’s incomplete sketch. But though I feel, I must endeavour to resist the temptation of indicating some of the probable objects of his antipathy.
Pope’s gallant assault on the common enemy indicates, meanwhile, his characteristic attitude. Pope is the incarnation of the literary spirit. He is the most complete representative in our language of the intellectual instincts which find their natural expression in pure literature, as distinguished from literature applied to immediate practical ends, or enlisted in the service of philosophy or science. The complete antithesis to that spirit is the evil principle which Pope attacks as dulness. This false goddess is the literary Ahriman; and Pope’s natural antipathies, exaggerated by his personal passions and weaknesses to extravagant proportions, express themselves fully in his great mock-epic. His theory may be expressed in a parody of Nelson’s immortal advice to his midshipmen: ‘Be an honest man and hate dulness as you do the devil.’ Dulness generates the asphyxiating atmosphere in which no true literature can thrive. It oppresses the lungs and irritates the nerves of men whose keen brilliant intellects mark them as the natural servants of literature. Seen from this point of view, there is an honourable completeness in Pope’s career. Possibly a modern subject of literature may, without paradox, express a certain gratitude to Pope for a virtue which he would certainly be glad to imitate. Pope was the first man who made an independence by literature. First and last, he seems to have received over 8,000l. for his translation of Homer, a sum then amply sufficient to enable him to live in comfort. No sum at all comparable to this was ever received by a poet or novelist until the era of Scott and Byron. Now, without challenging admiration for Pope on the simple ground that he made his fortune, it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this feat at the time. A contemporary who, whatever his faults, was a still more brilliant example than Pope of the purely literary qualities, suggests a curious parallel. Voltaire, as he tells us, was so weary of the humiliations that dishonour letters, that to stay his disgust he resolved to make ‘what scoundrels call a great fortune.’ Some of Voltaire’s means of reaching this end appear to have been more questionable than Pope’s. But both of these men of genius early secured their independence by raising themselves permanently above the need of writing for money. It may be added in passing that there is a curious similarity in intellect and character between Pope and Voltaire which would on occasion be worth fuller exposition. The use, too, which Pope made of his fortune was thoroughly honourable. We scarcely give due credit, as a rule, to the man who has the rare merit of distinctly recognising his true vocation in life, and adhering to it with unflinching pertinacity. Probably the fact that such virtue generally brings a sufficient personal reward in this world seems to dispense with the necessity of additional praise. But call it a virtuous or merely a useful quality, we must at least admit that it is the necessary groundwork of a thoroughly satisfactory career. Pope, who from his infancy had
Lisped in numbers, for the numbers came,
gained by his later numbers a secure position, and used his position to go on rhyming to the end of his life. He never failed to do his very best. He regarded the wealth which he had earned as a retaining fee, not as a discharge from his duties. Comparing him with his contemporaries, we see how vast was the advantage. Elevated above Grub Street, he had no temptation to manufacture rubbish or descend to actual meanness like De Foe. Independent of patronage, he was not forced to become a ‘tame cat’ in the hands of a duchess, like his friend Gay. Standing apart from politics, he was free from those disappointed pangs which contributed to the embitterment of the later years of Swift, dying ‘like a poisoned rat in a hole;’ he had not, like Bolingbroke, to affect a philosophical contempt for the game in which he could no longer take a part; nor was he even, like Addison and Steele, induced to ‘give up to party what was meant for mankind.’ He was not a better man than some of these, and certainly not better than Goldsmith and Johnson in the succeeding generation. Yet, when we think of the amount of good intellect that ran to waste in the purlieus of Grub Street, or in hunting for pensions in ministerial ante-chambers, we feel a certain gratitude to the one literary magnate of the century, whose devotion, it is true, had a very tangible reward, but whose devotion was yet continuous, and free from any distractions but those of a constitutional irritability. Nay, if we compare Pope to some of the later writers who have wrung still princelier rewards from fortune, the result is not unfavourable. If Scott had been as true to his calling, his life, so far superior to Pope’s in most other respects, would not have presented the melancholy contrast of genius running to waste in desperate attempts to win money at the cost of worthier fame.
Pope, as a Roman Catholic, and as the adherent of a defeated party, had put himself out of the race for pecuniary reward. His loyal adherence to his friends, though, like all his virtues, subject to some deduction, is really a touching feature in his character. His Catholicism was of the most nominal kind. He adhered in name to a depressed Church chiefly because he could not bear to give pain to the parents whom he loved with an exquisite tenderness. Granting that he would not have had much chance of winning tangible rewards by the baseness of a desertion, he at least recognised his true position; and instead of being soured by his exclusion from the general competition, or wasting his life in frivolous regrets, he preserved a spirit of tolerance and independence, and had a full right to the boasts in which he certainly indulged a little too freely:—
Not Fortune’s worshipper, nor Fashion’s fool,
Not Lucre’s madman, nor Ambition’s tool;
Not proud, nor servile—be one poet’s praise
That, if he pleased, he pleased by manly ways;
That flattery, even to kings, he held a shame,
And thought a lie in prose or verse the same.
Admitting that the last line suggests a slight qualm, the portrait suggested in the rest is about as faithful as one can expect a man to paint from himself.
And hence we come to the question, what was the morality which Pope dispensed from this exalted position? Admitting his independence, can we listen to him patiently when he proclaims himself to be
Of virtue only, and her friends, the friend;
or when he boasts in verses noble if quite sincere—
Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me;
Safe from the Bar, the Pulpit, and the Throne,
Yet touched and shamed by ridicule alone.
Is this guardian of virtue quite immaculate, and the morality which he preaches quite of the most elevated kind? We must admit, of course, that he does not sound the depths, or soar to the heights, in which men of loftier genius are at home. He is not a mystic, but a man of the world. He never, as we have already said, quits the sphere of ordinary and rather obvious maxims about the daily life of society, or quits it at his peril. His independence is not like Milton’s, that of an ancient prophet, consoling himself by celestial visions for a world given over to baseness and frivolity; nor like Shelley’s, that of a vehement revolutionist, who has declared open war against the existing order; it is the independence of a modern gentleman, with a competent fortune, enjoying a time of political and religious calm. And therefore his morality is in the main the expression of the conclusions reached by supreme good sense, or, as he puts it,
Good sense, which only is the gift of heaven,
And though no science, fairly worth the seven.
Good sense is one of the excellent qualities to which we are scarcely inclined to do justice at the present day; it is the guide of a time of equilibrium, stirred by no vehement gales of passion, and we lose sight of it just when it might give us some useful advice. A man in a passion is never more irritated than when advised to be sensible; and at the present day we are permanently in a passion, and therefore apt to assert that, not only for a moment, but as a general rule, men do well to be angry. Our art critics, for example, are never satisfied with their frame of mind till they have lashed themselves into a fit of rhetoric. Nothing more is wanted to explain why we are apt to be dissatisfied with Pope, both as a critic and a moralist. In both capacities, however, Pope is really admirable. Nobody, for example, has ridiculed more happily the absurdities of which we sometimes take him to be a representative. The recipe for making an epic poem is a perfect burlesque upon the pseudo-classicism of his time. He sees the absurdity of the contemporary statues, whose grotesque medley of ancient and modern costume is recalled in the lines—
That livelong wig, which Gorgon’s self might own,
Eternal buckle takes in Parian stone.
The painters and musicians come in for their share of ridicule, as in the description of Timon’s Chapel, where
Light quirks of music, broken and uneven,
Make the soul dance upon a jig to heaven;
On painted ceilings you devoutly stare,
Where sprawl the saints of Verrio and Laguerre.
Pope, again, was one of the first, by practice and precept, to break through the old formal school of gardening, in which
No pleasing intricacies intervene,
No artful wildness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.
The suffering eye inverted Nature sees,
Trees cut to statues, statues thick as trees,
With here a fountain never to be played,
And there a summer-house that knows no shade;
Here Amphitrite sails through myrtle bowers,
There gladiators fight or die in flowers;
Unwatered see the drooping sea-horse mourn,
And swallows roost in Nilus’ dusty urn.
It would be impossible to hit off more happily the queer formality which annoys us, unless its quaintness makes us smile, in the days of good Queen Anne, when Cato still appeared with a
Long wig, flowered gown, and lacquered chair.
Pope’s literary criticism, too, though verging too often on the commonplace, is generally sound as far as it goes. If, as was inevitable, he was blind to the merits of earlier schools of poetry, he was yet amongst the first writers who helped to establish the rightful supremacy of Shakespeare.
But in what way does Pope apply his good sense to morality? His favourite doctrine about human nature is expressed in the theory of the ‘ruling passion’ which is to be found in all men, and which, once known, enables us to unravel the secret of every character. As he says in the ‘Essay on Man’—
On life’s vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but passion is the gale.
Right reason, therefore, is the power which directs passions to the worthiest end; and its highest lesson is to enforce
The truth (enough for man to know)
Virtue alone is happiness below.
The truth, though admirable, may be suspected of commonplace; and Pope does not lay down any propositions unfamiliar to other moralists, nor, it is to be feared, enforce them by preaching of more than usual effectiveness. His denunciations of avarice, of corruption, and of sensuality were probably of little more practical use than his denunciation of dulness. The ‘men not afraid of God’ were hardly likely to be deterred from selling their votes to Walpole by fear of Pope’s satire. He might
Goad the Prelate slumbering in his stall
sufficiently to produce the episcopal equivalent for bad language; but he would hardly interrupt the bishop’s slumbers for many moments; and, on the whole, he might congratulate himself, rather too cheaply, on being animated by
The strong antipathy of good to bad.
Without exaggerating its importance, however, we may seek to define the precise point on which Pope’s morality differed from that of many other writers who have expressed their general approval of the ten commandments. A healthy strain of moral feeling is useful, though we cannot point to the individuals whom it has restrained from picking pockets.
The defective side of the morality of good sense is, that it tends to degenerate into cynicism, either of the indolent variety which commended itself to Chesterfield, or of the more vehement sort, of which Swift’s writings are the most powerful embodiment. A shrewd man of the world, of placid temperament, accepts placidly the conclusion that as he can see through a good many people, virtue generally is a humbug. If he has grace enough left to be soured by such a conclusion, he raves at the universal corruption of mankind. Now Pope, notwithstanding his petty spite, and his sympathy with the bitterness of his friends, always shows a certain tenderness of nature which preserves him from sweeping cynicism. He really believes in nature, and values life for the power of what Johnson calls reciprocation of benevolence. The beauty of his affection for his father and mother, and for his old nurse, breaks pleasantly through the artificial language of his letters, like a sweet spring in barren ground. When he touches upon the subject in his poetry, one seems to see tears in his eyes, and to hear his voice tremble. There is no more beautiful passage in his writings than the one in which he expresses the hope that he may be spared
To rock the cradle of reposing age,
With lenient arts extend a mother’s breath,
Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death;
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep awhile one parent from the sky.
Here at least he is sincere beyond suspicion; and we know from unimpeachable testimony that the sentiment so perfectly expressed was equally exemplified in his life. It sounds easy, but unfortunately the ease is not always proved in practice, for a man of genius to be throughout their lives an unmixed comfort to his parents. It is unpleasant to remember that a man so accessible to tender emotions should jar upon us by his language about women generally. Byron countersigns the opinion of Bolingbroke that he knew the sex well; but testimony of that kind hardly prepossesses us in his favour. In fact, the school of Bolingbroke and Swift, to say nothing of Wycherley, was hardly calculated to generate a chivalrous tone of feeling. His experience of Lady Mary gave additional bitterness to his sentiments. Pope, in short, did not love good women—
Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
And best distinguished as black, brown, or fair,
as he impudently tells a lady—as a man of genius ought; and women have generally returned the dislike. Meanwhile the vein of benevolence shows itself unmistakably in Pope’s language about his friends. Thackeray seizes upon this point of his character in his lectures on the English Humourists, and his powerful, if rather too favourable, description brings out forcibly the essential tenderness of the man who, during the lucid intervals of his last illness, was ‘always saying something kindly of his present or absent friends.’ Nobody, as has often been remarked, has paid so many exquisitely turned compliments. There is something which rises to the dog-like in his affectionate admiration for Swift and for Bolingbroke, his rather questionable ‘guide, philosopher, and friend.’ Whenever he speaks of a friend, he is sure to be felicitous. There is Garth, for example—
The best good Christian he,
Although he knows it not.
There are beautiful lines upon Arbuthnot, addressed as—
Friend to my life, which did not you prolong,
The world had wanted many an idle song.
Or we may quote, though one verse has been spoilt by familiarity, the lines in which Bolingbroke is coupled with Peterborough:—
There St. John mingles with my friendly bowl
The feast of reason and the flow of soul;
And he whose lightning pierced the Iberian lines
Now farms my quincunx, and now ranks my vines,
And tames the genius of the stubborn plain
Almost as quickly as he conquered Spain.
Or again, there are the verses in which he anticipates the dying words attributed to Pitt:—
And you, brave Cobham, to the latest breath,
Shall feel the ruling passion strong in death;
Such in those moments, as in all the past,
‘Oh, save my country, Heaven!’ shall be your last.
Cobham’s name, again, suggests the spirited lines—
Spirit of Arnall! aid me while I lie,
Cobham’s a coward, Polwarth is a slave,
And Lyttelton a dark, designing knave;
St. John has ever been a wealthy fool—
But let me add Sir Robert’s mighty dull,
Has never made a friend in private life,
And was, besides, a tyrant to his wife.
Perhaps the last compliment is ambiguous, but Walpole’s name again reminds us that Pope could on occasion be grateful even to an opponent. ‘Go see Sir Robert,’ suggests his friend in the epilogue to the Satires; and Pope replies—
Seen him I have; but in his happier hour
Of social pleasure, ill exchanged for power;
Seen him uncumbered with the venal tribe
Smile without art, and win without a bribe;
Would he oblige me? Let me only find
He does not think me what he thinks mankind;
Come, come; at all I laugh, he laughs no doubt;
The only difference is, I dare laugh out.
But there is no end to the delicate flattery which may be set off against Pope’s ferocious onslaughts upon his enemies. If one could have a wish for the asking, one could scarcely ask for a more agreeable sensation than that of being titillated by a man of equal ingenuity in caressing one’s pet vanities. The art of administering such consolation is possessed only by men who unite such tenderness to an exquisitely delicate intellect. This vein of genuine feeling sufficiently redeems Pope’s writings from the charge of a commonplace worldliness. Certainly he is not one of the ‘genial’ school, whose indiscriminate benevolence exudes over all that they touch. There is nothing mawkish in his philanthropy. Pope was, if anything, too good a hater; ‘the portentous cub never forgives,’ said Bentley; but kindliness is all the more impressive when not too widely diffused. Add to this his hearty contempt for pomposities, humbugs, and stupidities of all kinds, and above all the fine spirit of independence, in which we have again the real man, and which expresses itself in such lines as these:
Oh, let me live my own, and die so too!
(To live and die is all I have to do);
Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,
And see what friends and read what books I please.
And we may admit that Pope, in spite of his wig and his stays, his vanities and his affectations, was in his way as fair an embodiment as we would expect of that ‘plain living and high thinking’ of which Wordsworth regretted the disappearance. The little cripple, diseased in mind and body, spiteful and occasionally brutal, had in him the spirit of a man. The monarch of the literary world was far from immaculate; but he was not without a dignity of his own.
We come, however, to the question, what had Pope to say upon the deepest subjects with which human beings can concern themselves? The most explicit answer must be taken from the ‘Essay on Man,’ and the essay must be acknowledged to have more conspicuous faults than any of Pope’s writings. The art of reasoning in verse is so difficult that we may doubt whether it is in any case legitimate, and must acknowledge that it has been never successfully practised by any English writer. Dryden’s ‘Religio Laici’ may be better reasoning, but it is worse poetry than Pope’s Essay. It is true, again, that Pope’s reasoning is intrinsically feeble. He was no metaphysician, and confined himself to putting together incoherent scraps of different systems. Some of his arguments strike us as simply childish, as, for example, the quibble derived from the Stoics, that
The blest today is as completely so
As who began a thousand years ago.
Nobody, we may safely say, was ever much comforted by that reflection. Nor, though the celebrated argument about the scale of beings, which Pope but half-understood, was then sanctioned by the most eminent contemporary names, do we derive any deep consolation from the remark that
in the scale of reasoning life, ’tis plain,
There must be somewhere such a rank as man.
To say no more of these frigid conceits, as they now appear to us, Pope does not maintain the serious temper which befits a man pondering upon the deep mysteries of the universe. Religious meditation does not harmonise with epigrammatical satire. Admitting the value of the reflection that other beings besides man are fitting objects of the Divine benevolence, we are jarred by such a discord as this:
While man exclaims, See all things for my use!
See man for mine! replies a pampered goose.
The goose is appropriate enough in Charron or Montaigne, but should be kept out of poetry. Such a shock, too, follows when Pope talks about the superior beings who
Showed a Newton as we show an ape.
Did anybody, again, ever complain that he wanted ‘the strength of bulls, the fur of bears?’ Or could it be worth while to meet his complaints in a serious poem? Pope, in short, is not merely a bad reasoner, but he wants that deep moral earnestness which gives a profound interest to Johnson’s satires—the best productions of his school—and the deeply pathetic religious feeling of Cowper.
Admitting all this, however, and more, the ‘Essay on Man’ still contains many passages which not only testify to the unequalled skill of this great artist in words, but show a certain moral dignity. In the Essay, more than in any of his other writings, we have the difficulty of separating the solid bullion from the dross. Pope is here pre-eminently parasitical, and it is possible to trace to other writers, such as Montaigne, Pascal, Leibniz, Shaftesbury, Locke, and Wollaston, as well as to the inspiration of Bolingbroke, nearly every argument which he employs. He unfortunately worked up the rubbish as well as the gems. When Mr. Ruskin says that his ‘theology was two centuries in advance of his time,’ the phrase is curiously inaccurate. He was not really in advance of the best men of his own time; but they, it is to be feared, were considerably in advance of the average opinion of our own. What may be said with more plausibility is, that whilst Pope frequently wastes his skill in gilding refuse, he is really most sensitive to the noblest sentiments of his contemporaries, and that, when he has good materials to work upon, his verse glows with unusual fervour, often to sink with unpleasant rapidity into mere quibbling or epigrammatic pungency. The real truth is that Pope precisely expresses the position of the best thinkers of his day. He did not understand the reasoning, but he fully shared the sentiments of the philosophers among whom Locke and Leibniz were the great lights. Pope is to the deists and semi-deists of his time what Milton was to the Puritans or Dante to the Schoolmen. At times he writes like a Pantheist, and then becomes orthodox, without a consciousness of the transition; he is a believer in universal predestination, and saves himself by inconsistent language about ‘leaving free the human will;’ his views about the origin of society are an inextricable mass of inconsistency; and he may be quoted in behalf of doctrines which he, with the help of Warburton, vainly endeavoured to disavow. But, leaving sound divines to settle the question of his orthodoxy, and metaphysicians to crush his arguments, if they think it worth while, we are rather concerned with the general temper in which he regards the universe, and the moral which he draws for his own edification. The main doctrine which he enforces is, of course, one of his usual commonplaces. The statement that ‘whatever is, is right,’ may be verbally admitted, and strained to different purposes by half-a-dozen differing schools. It may be alleged by the cynic, who regards virtue as an empty name; by the mystic, who is lapped in heavenly contemplation from the cares of this troublesome world; by the sceptic, whose whole wisdom is concentrated in the duty of submitting to the inevitable; or by the man who, abandoning the attempt of solving inscrutable enigmas, is content to recognise in everything the hand of a Divine ordainer of all things. Pope, judging him by his most forcible passages, prefers to insist upon the inevitable ignorance of man in presence of the Infinite:
‘Tis but a part we see, and not the whole;
and any effort to pierce the impenetrable gloom can only end in disappointment and discontent:
In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies.
We think that we can judge the ways of the Almighty, and correct the errors of His work. We are as incapable of accounting for human wickedness as for plague, tempest, and earthquake. In each case our highest wisdom is an humble confession of ignorance; or, as he puts it,
In both, to reason right is to submit.
This vein of thought might, perhaps, have conducted him to the scepticism of his master, Bolingbroke. He unluckily fills up the gaps of his logical edifice with the untempered mortar of obsolete metaphysics, long since become utterly uninteresting to all men. Admitting that he cannot explain, he tries to manufacture sham explanations out of the ‘scale of beings,’ and other scholastic rubbish. But, in a sense, too, the most reverent minds will agree most fully with Pope’s avowal of the limitation of human knowledge. He does not apply his scepticism or his humility to stimulate to vain repining against the fetters with which our minds are bound, or an angry denunciation, like that of Bolingbroke, of the solutions in which other souls have found a sufficient refuge. The perplexity in which he finds himself generates a spirit of resignation and tolerance.
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher, Death, and God adore.
That is the pith of his teaching. All optimism is apt to be a little irritating to men whose sympathies with human suffering are unusually strong; and the optimism of a man like Pope, vivacious rather than profound in his thoughts and his sympathies, annoys us at times by his calm complacency. We cannot thrust aside so easily the thought of the heavy evils under which all creation groans. But we should wrong him by a failure to recognise the real benevolence of his sentiment. Pope indeed becomes too pantheistic for some tastes in the celebrated fragment—the whole poem is a conglomerate of slightly connected fragments—beginning,
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
But his real fault is that he is not consistently pantheistic. Pope was attacked both for his pantheism and fatalism and for having borrowed from Bolingbroke. It is curious enough that it was precisely these doctrines which he did not borrow. Bolingbroke, like most feeble reasoners, believed firmly in Free Will; and though a theist after a fashion, his religion had not emotional depth or logical coherence enough to be pantheistic. Pope, doubtless, did not here quit his master’s guidance from any superiority in logical perception. But he did occasionally feel the poetical value of the pantheistic conception of the universe. Pantheism, in fact, is the only poetical form of the metaphysical theology current in Pope’s day. The old historical theology of Dante, or even of Milton, was too faded for poetical purposes; and the ‘personal Deity,’ whose existence and attributes were proved by the elaborate reasonings of the apologists of that day, was unfitted for poetical celebration by the very fact that his existence required proof. Poetry deals with intuitions, not with remote inferences, and therefore in his better moments Pope spoke not of the intelligent moral Governor discovered by philosophical investigation, but of the Divine Essence immanent in all nature, whose ‘living raiment’ is the world. The finest passages in the ‘Essay on Man,’ like the finest passages in Wordsworth, are an attempt to expound that view, though Pope falls back too quickly into epigram, as Wordsworth into prose. It was reserved for Goethe to show what a poet might learn from the philosophy of Spinoza. Meanwhile Pope, uncertain as is his grasp of any philosophical conceptions, shows, not merely in set phrases, but in the general colouring of his poem, something of that width of sympathy which should result from the pantheistic view. The tenderness, for example, with which he always speaks of the brute creation is pleasant in a writer so little distinguished as a rule by an interest in what we popularly call nature. The ‘scale of being’ argument may be illogical, but we pardon it when it is applied to strengthen our sympathies with our unfortunate dependants on the lower steps of the ladder. The lamb who
Licks the hand just raised to shed his blood
is a second-hand lamb, and has, like so much of Pope’s writing, acquired a certain tinge of banality, which must limit quotation; and the same must be said of the poor Indian, who
thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog will bear him company.
But the sentiment is as right as the language (in spite of its familiarity we can still recognise the fact) is exquisite. Tolerance of all forms of faith, from that of the poor Indian upwards, is so characteristic of Pope as to have offended some modern critics who might have known better. We may pick holes in the celebrated antithesis
For forms of government let fools contest:
Whate’er is best administered is best;
For forms of faith let graceless zealots fight,
He can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.
Certainly, they are not mathematically accurate formulæ; but they are generous, if imperfect, statements of great truths, and not unbecoming in the mouth of the man who, as the member of an unpopular sect, learnt to be cosmopolitan rather than bitter, and expressed his convictions in the well-known words addressed to Swift: ‘I am of the religion of Erasmus, a Catholic; so I live, so I shall die; and hope one day to meet you, Bishop Atterbury, the younger Craggs, Dr. Garth, Dean Berkeley, and Mr. Hutchinson in heaven.’ Who would wish to shorten the list? And the scheme of morality which Pope deduced for practical guidance in life is in harmony with the spirit which breathes in those words just quoted. A recent dispute in a court of justice shows that even our most cultivated men have forgotten Pope so far as to be ignorant of the source of the familiar words—
What can ennoble sots, or slaves, or cowards?
Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.
It is therefore necessary to say explicitly that the poem where they occur, the fourth epistle of the ‘Essay on Man,’ not only contains half-a-dozen other phrases equally familiar—e.g., ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God;’ ‘Looks through nature up to nature’s God;’ ‘From grave to gay, from lively to severe’—but breathes throughout sentiments which it would be credulous to believe that any man could express so vigorously without feeling profoundly. Mr. Ruskin has quoted one couplet as giving ‘the most complete, the most concise, and the most lofty expression of moral temper existing in English words’—
Never elated, while one man’s oppressed;
Never dejected, whilst another’s blessed.
The passage in which they occur is worthy of this (let us admit, just a little over-praised) sentiment; and leads not unfitly to the conclusion and summary of the whole, that he who can recognise the beauty of virtue knows that
Where Faith, Law, Morals, all began,
All end—in love of God and love of man.
I know but too well all that may be said against this view of Pope’s morality. He is, as Ste.-Beuve says, the easiest of all men to caricature; and it is equally easy to throw cold water upon his morality. We may count up his affectations, ridicule his platitudes, make heavy deductions for his insincerity, denounce his too frequent indulgence in a certain love of dirt, which he shares with, and in which indeed he is distanced by, Swift; and decline to believe in the virtue, or even in the love of virtue, of a man stained by so many vices and weaknesses. Yet I must decline to believe that men can gather grapes off thorns, or figs off thistles, or noble expressions of moral truth from a corrupt heart thinly varnished by a coating of affectation. Turn it how we may, the thing is impossible. Pope was more than a mere literary artist, though he was an artist of unparalleled excellence in his own department. He was a man in whom there was the seed of many good thoughts, though choked in their development by the growth of innumerable weeds. And I will venture, in conclusion, to adduce one more proof of the justice of a lenient verdict. I have had already to quote many phrases familiar to everyone who is tinctured in the slightest degree with a knowledge of English literature; and yet have been haunted by a dim suspicion that some of my readers may have been surprised to recognise their author. Pope, we have seen, is recognised even by judges of the land only through the medium of Byron; and therefore the ‘Universal Prayer’ may possibly be unfamiliar to some readers. If so, it will do them no harm to read over again a few of its verses. Perhaps, after that experience, they will admit that the little cripple of Twickenham, distorted as were his instincts after he had been stretched on the rack of this rough world, and grievous as were his offences against the laws of decency and morality, had yet in him a noble strain of eloquence significant of deep religious sentiment. A phrase in the first stanza may shock us as bordering too closely on the epigrammatic; but the whole poem from which I take these stanzas must, I think, be recognised as the utterance of a tolerant, reverent, and kindly heart:
Father of all! in every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage—
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!
Thou great First Cause, least understood,
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that thou art good,
And that myself am blind.
What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This, teach me more than hell to shun;
That, more than heaven pursue.
What blessings thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives—
To enjoy is to obey.
Yet not to earth’s contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound,
Or think thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.
Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume thy bolts to throw,
Or deal damnation round the land
On each I judge thy foe.
If I am right, thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay:
If I am wrong, oh, teach my heart
To find that better way.
These stanzas, I am well aware, do not quite conform to the modern taste in hymns, nor are they likely to find favour with admirers of the ‘Christian Year.’ Another school would object to them on a very different ground. The deism of Pope’s day was not a stable form of belief; but in the form in which it was held by the pure deists of the Toland and Tindal school, or by the disguised deists who followed Locke or Clarke, it was the highest creed then attainable; and Pope’s prayer is an adequate impression of its best sentiment.