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The Powers of Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England

by Morris R. Brownell
Oxford University Press, 401 pp., $38.50

Near the source of Alexander Pope’s work is an anxiety understandable when we consider his health and religion. As a Roman Catholic in a Protestant nation, Pope suffered maddening penalties. He could not attend a university or hold a civil office. He paid double the normal tax on land, and the law forbade him to reside within ten miles of London. All Roman Catholics were exposed to charges of conspiring against the government.

But Pope’s worst affliction was tuberculosis of the spine, which gave him rickets and a progressive, lopsided curvature of the back. It made him grotesquely short and gradually weakened his thin limbs. It produced much languor, a susceptibility to bad colds, and other painful or unpleasant symptoms which worsened as he aged. Pope had to wear a stiff corset, warm clothes, and (over the skinny legs) three pairs of stockings. Normal sexual relations were out of the question.

Frail, vulnerable, and (in effect) impotent, Pope had a natural desire for the security of well-placed friends. One of the mainsprings of his imagination was the need to protect himself. Still he was conscious of his genius and longed for fame. He yearned to exercise heroic power through the gift of poetry.

To gain the recognition he wanted, Pope had to mask many emotions. As an adolescent, he began a career of seeking out men of talent, rank, or power, winning their friendship, and making them serve him. To do so, he learned to charm them with tact and wit, paying careful compliments and accommodating himself to the moods of the mighty.

Not only in his poems but also in his letters and conversation, Pope systematically maintained careful representations of himself that would uphold an appearance of strength, independence, and natural benevolence, all in keeping with the doctrines he recommended in verse. What records we have of his conversation suggest that he hoped his sentiments would be repeated. The rhetoric of his most familiar letters continually sounds like that of a senator emitting platitudes for his own obituary:

I thank God that as for myself, I am below all the accidents of state changes by my circumstances, and above them by my philosophy. Good will to all, are the points I have most at heart….

A second reader—Posterity—generally looked over the poet’s epistolary shoulder.

I assume that such constraints, added to those of health and religion, nourished a deep resentfulness which compounded the original anxiety. The poetic instinct bent itself to please those whom Pope needed, while the very impulse to create started from subterranean discomfort. Words are the common resource of those who cannot act, but Pope’s words had many duties. They vented painful emotions which the poet dared not express simply. They conveyed an air of assurance to cloak a fundamental unease. They made up for a lack of sexual authority. They rewarded friends and punished enemies.

Pope devised methods of attracting and reassuring those who might be hostile to his brilliance and yet of challenging subtle readers by offering them dangerous thoughts. Wit and irony are known ways of accomplishing these ends, and good critics have examined Pope’s use of them. He found other ways as well, which are less familiar; and some of them emerge from the new books on Pope by Dustin H. Griffin and Morris R. Brownell.

If we agree that sex and religion are themes inviting indirection, we may also agree that religion, for Pope, was too risky a subject to experiment with. He did venture on opinions that might trouble his co-religionists, especially a tolerance of non-Catholic positions. He blamed great ecclesiastics for timeserving, avarice, and power-hunger. But he did not indulge in satire on allegedly false doctrines, as Dryden and Swift had done. In The Messiah and An Essay on Man, Pope tried, explicitly and implicitly, to avoid controversy.

Sexual themes were treacherous too. The poet’s obvious incapacity drove him to adopt conventional poses for fear of becoming too easy a target of ridicule. Whether he used a rake or a moralist as his mouthpiece, he could hardly afford to sound innovative. But if sexual themes particularly excite word-play, they must have exerted a special charm upon a poet. Pope felt the charm, and characteristically offered both conformist and subversive treatments of those themes.

The association of sexuality with creative power is inevitable. Keeping this linkage in mind, one must notice Pope’s tendency to maintain it and yet to separate the imagery of conception from that of sexual intercourse. He liked to refer to his works as progeny and to the muse as a wife, but not to love-making between the creative pair.

So one may speculate about the scenes of grotesque fantasy that break out in Pope’s best work. Underground, cavernous, and obstetric images, tinged with sexuality, suggest that literary parenthood compensated the poet for the loss of voluptuous pleasure. Pope designed extremely coherent masterpieces around heroines deprived of normal sexual relations: Eloisa to Abelard, Elegy to…an Unfortunate Lady, The Rape of the Lock, An Epistle to a Lady (“Of the Characters of Women”). Even Dulness, in The Dunciad, is an unmarried or parthenogenetic mother. Yet Pope produced no episode of admirable and fulfilled passion.

Two of his most polished works deal sympathetically with women penalized for subversive lust. In Eloisa to Abelard the lover has been castrated and the mistress consigned to a nunnery. In the Elegy to…an Unfortunate Lady a noble heiress has stabbed herself after eloping to a foreign country with a lover whom her guardian uncle had rejected. In both these poems the author encourages us to sympathize with the lawbreaker: “Is it, in heav’n, a crime to love too well?” he asks.

In An Epistle to a Lady the poet compliments his spinster friend Martha Blount (whom he fleetingly endows with a mythical husband and daughter) by opposing her to a series of corrupt, passionate mistresses or wives. In The Rape of the Lock the male figures are ridiculed and defeated, while the females remain unsatisfied.

Against this pattern it seems significant that the scenes of grotesque fantasy depend on images of unpleasant confusion and procreation. I am thinking of the Cave of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock, the Cave of Poverty and Poetry in Book One of The Dunciad, the bowers of the mud nymphs in Book Two of The Dunciad, and similar material.

Spleen of course means melancholy; and in the seventeenth century it was commonplace to regard melancholy as the “balm of wit” and the “breath of poetry.” When the gnome Umbriel descends to the Cave of Spleen, he is visiting a spring of creative imagination. Here Spleen herself is a goddess who can inspire the “poetic fit.” Although the details of this allegorical cave are traditional, Pope colors them with phallic and erotic lights, with hints of perverse coition and gestation. We get a linking of creativity with displaced sexuality and pain:

Men prove with child, as pow’rful fancy works,
And maids turn’d bottles, call
   aloud for corks.

In Book Three of The Dunciad we meet the laureate Cibber lying with his head in the lap of the goddess Dulness while a dark, soporific dew falls and “raptures” overflow—a titillating scene. Later in Book Three another genius of false imagination appears—John Rich, producer of pantomimes. Now Pope brings in imagery of miraculous transformations of the universe echoing the representation of Christ in The Messiah, and suggesting genesis and doomsday at once. The chaos reaches its climax with an egg from which the human race is hatched. So again the work of creative imagination carries hints of asexual conception or parthenogenesis.

Pope gives several distinct representations of the poetic character. The most familiar is the public idealization of an uncorrupt spokesman for patriotic and social virtue. With such a character Pope liked to identify his own career. Yet implicitly this ideal public figure belittles another, viz. the inspired artist celebrated by Horace and echoed by Pope in his Epistle to Augustus:

Tis he, who gives my breast a thousand pains,
Can make me feel each passion that he feigns,
Inrage, compose, with more than magic art,
With pity, and with terror, tear my heart.

Here “poet” obviously means seductive playwright and manipulator of emotions rather than didactic satirist.

But there is yet another figure, for which Pope has contempt, and which he embodies in the persons of failed or inept authors. This is the one that attracts his greatest energy, his most imaginative language. Therefore, although it alludes normally to writers whom Pope disliked, one suspects that it also reflects Pope’s doubts about his own status. He might be a uniquely gifted poet; but if one puts aside traditional hyperboles, what did the laurel crown amount to?

We have to notice how often Pope connects the act of composition with pain, confusion, misshapen birth and growth, delusive transformation. In such scenes we do not meet orderliness, truth, the dignity of art, and the securing of reality. We meet chaos, monsterhood, illusion: “the chaos dark and deep, / Where nameless somethings in their causes sleep” (Dunciad I, 55-56). We meet contempt for the makers of verse: “Pensive poets painful vigils keep, / Sleepless themselves, to give their readers sleep” (Dunciad I, 93-94). Attacking the decay of humanistic education, Pope ridicules the standard practice of training schoolboys to compose Latin verses: “We hang one jingling padlock on the mind: / A poet the first day, he dips his quill; / And what the last? a very poet still” (Dunciad IV, 162-164).

These examples are from the last years of Pope’s career and deal with bad poetry, not good. In his earliest work, we meet similar passages:

Still run on poets in a raging vein,
Ev’n to the dregs and squeezings of the brain;
Strain out the last, dull droppings of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of im- potence!
—Essay on Criticism, 11.606-609

This linking of composition to a hard stool and sexual failure also belongs to an attack on bad writing. But the images have too much power to rest in the boundaries of explicit meaning.

When Pope refers directly to his own vocation as an author, he writes, “I’ve had my purgatory here betimes, / And paid for all my satires, all my rhymes” (Donne IV, 5-6). It was only half-jokingly that he once said of the poetic enterprise, “Must not one be prepared to endure the reproaches of men, want, and much fasting, nay martyrdom in its cause.” Voluptuous pleasure and the art of writing well, “lastingly well, immortally well,” are irreconcilably opposed to each other.

If one sets aside the associations with authorship, unsublimated sexuality takes one along a more direct road, but not to marriage, parenthood, and stability. In The Rape of the Lock, disorderly lust glances at us from the first couplet; and it pounds on us in the final canto. “Die” for sexual climax, “thing” for vagina, “hair” displaced from the groin to the head, all remind one that the proper study of nubile females is men.

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